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Fighting diarrhea and pneumonia, via vaccine, becomes priority

International donors have pledged more than $4 billion this week to support vaccines for children in developing countries. Two of their primary targets? Diarrhea and pneumonia – horrible specters elsewhere in the world, much less so in this country.

“For the first time in history, children in developing countries will receive the same vaccines against diarrhea and pneumonia as children in rich countries,” Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates was quoted as saying.

To that end, the Bill & Melinda Foundation pledged $1 billion at the one-day summit of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, held Monday in London. The largest single pledge came from the United Kingdom, with Prime Minister David Cameron promising $1.3 billion.

The alliance itself says this:

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“Conference participants agreed that the momentum to reach more children with vaccines must be maintained and they encouraged GAVI to expand coverage of immunisation programmes and accelerate the introduction of new vaccines. “

In the U.S., many children get diarrhea, but few die from it;  worldwide, diarrhea is the second-largest killer of children under 5 years of age, according to the World Health Organization. Each year, about 1.5 million children perish because of it.

Immunization could reduce that number, says the Gates Foundation. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two vaccines against rotavirus, which causes stomach and intestinal inflammation and severe watery diarrhea. The virus is the most common cause of severe diarrheal disease, but the bacterial diseases typhoid and cholera also contribute to diarrheal deaths.

The Gates Foundation states in a strategy overview on its website:

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“It is estimated that existing vaccines for rotavirus, cholera, and typhoid could address approximately 25 percent of child deaths due to enteric and diarrheal diseases.”

Pneumonia, a severe lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, is the leading cause of death for children worldwide, killing about 1.6 million each year.  Children with compromised immune systems, from malnutrition or HIV infection, for example, are especially vulnerable.

The Gates Foundation states:

“We believe that vaccines are the best long-term hope to defeat pneumonia. In cases where proven vaccines against pneumonia exist, we’re supporting their rapid scale-up and delivery to those who need them.”

But even with the pledges of money and support pouring forth from London, some charities have criticized GAVI for not negotiating better deals for the vaccines they hold so dear.

Time will tell how far the $4.3 billion investment stretches.

healthkey@tribune.com

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