In Pakistan pneumonia is a major cause of death in children under five. (A Majeed, AFP)

South Asia gets life-saving vaccine

Mark Tran
Pakistan is set to become the first country in South Asia to introduce the pneumococcal vaccine to protect children against pneumonia.

Pneumonia is one of the biggest killers of children under five in the developing world. The country's prime minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, announced the programme on October 9, signalling clear political commitment from the Pakistani government to roll out the vaccine.

The latest United Nations estimates indicate that pneumococcal disease accounts for 18% of child mortality – the primary cause of death among young children globally. In Pakistan, more than 423 000 children die before reaching their fifth birthday and almost one in five of these deaths is from pneumonia. The new vaccine is expected to prevent a proportion of pneumonia cases.

The vaccine, to be introduced under Pakistan's expanded programme on immunisation, comes to the country with the help of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation in partnership with the UN children's agency Unicef and the World Health Organisation.

Previously, it took 10 to 15 years for developing countries such as Pakistan to get newer vaccines. But because the alliance covers about 95% of the cost, newer medicaments such as pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines are being introduced in developing countries simultaneously with developed countries.

The chairperson of Pakistan's immunisation technical advisory group, Dr Tariq Bhutta, told the Dawn newspaper last week that the vaccine cost $45 a unit in the US, but the alliance for vaccines and immunisation had bought it from the world's two leading manufacturers at a cost of $3.50 a unit to introduce it in South Asia.

"It is really positive that the political leadership is behind this," said Helen Evans, deputy chief executive of the alliance. "The fact that the prime minister is announcing this sends out an important message."

Evans expressed concern about the possible negative fallout from the CIA's decision to use a fake vaccination programme to confirm the whereabouts of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year. There have been reports that vaccination against polio, which has never been eradicated in Pakistan, has suffered setbacks following the Bin Laden killing.

"We are concerned about the fallout and the publicity around the polio campaign," Evans said. "It really damages public trust. So there is an important role for the media in stressing the value and usefulness of vaccines. I wouldn't underestimate concern, particularly in tribal areas, but we need to focus on the fact that this will save children's lives."

For the first three months the vaccine is due to be rolled out in Punjab province, where half of Pakistan's population lives. Sindh will be next, then the rest of the country in the following six to 12 months. The plan is for the vaccine to be rolled out in Bangladesh next year.

The pneumococcal vaccine has been rolled out in 16 developing countries to date, most of them in Africa. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation plans to immunise 90-million children with pneumococcal vaccines in more than 50 countries by 2015. – ©  Guardian News & Media 2012

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