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Vaccines are closing a gap that shames the world

Seth Berkley

April 29, 2012

THERE has been an unwritten rule that it can take 15 years or longer between the introduction of new life-saving vaccines in rich countries and their widespread use in the poorest nations. That has cost the lives of millions of children.

But national celebrations in Ghana last week to mark the introduction of two new vaccines highlight how this shameful gap is rapidly being closed. It is another exciting chapter in a story of leadership - and partnership - transforming health in the developing world.

Ghana already has an impressive immunisation program. But it is determined to go further by protecting against the world's two biggest killers of children: severe diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Last week it introduced both the rotavirus vaccine, which protects against diarrhoea, and the pneumococcal vaccine, which targets the primary cause of pneumonia. No other African country has introduced these vaccines simultaneously.

But what is also significant is that these sophisticated vaccines are being introduced so soon after their first use in the developed world. The 13-strain pneumococcal vaccine, for example, was first used in Europe only a couple of years ago. It is now protecting children in 14 other developing countries.

The protective power of vaccines is vital in every society, rich or poor. But their impact is even greater in developing countries because the quality of basic health services varies so drastically. Yet until recently, the countries that most needed these life-saving vaccines were all too often the least able to offer them.

But thanks to the efforts of global vaccination and immunisation organisation, the GAVI Alliance - which involves the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, governments in the developing and developed world, vaccine producers, businesses and philanthropic foundations - the position has been transformed.

Huge strides have been made in mass production of vaccines and in lowering their prices. New producers in developing countries provide more competition and guarantee supplies.

We have seen increased support from donors to help these efforts. Developing countries have put in place the systems and funds to deliver immunisation programs . Almost all low-income countries in the GAVI Alliance are now helping meet the cost of their vaccines.

The result has been that since the GAVI Alliance was set up in 2000, 325 million additional children have been vaccinated against a wide variety of diseases, helping prevent more than 5 million early deaths. Immunisation rates in the world's poorest countries have risen to an average of 80 per cent. Ghana itself now vaccinates 94 per cent of its children - a rate higher than in some richer countries.

The impact goes far beyond the immediate benefits to the children. It is estimated that a one-year increase in life expectancy increases labour productivity by 4 per cent.

But we can't rest while 1.7 million children are still dying every year from diseases we can prevent. We must step up our efforts so the vaccine revolution reaches every child.

Seth Berkley is the chief executive of the GAVI Alliance.

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