Albion Monitor /News

New Vaccines Mostly For The Rich, Complains UNICEF

by Thalif Deen

(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- The U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) is complaining that nearly all of the new vaccines being introduced to consumers throughout the world primarily are being produced to address diseases in rich countries.

"Even much of the current research into HIV vaccine development is focusing on vaccines for variants of the human immunodeficiency virus that are most likely to affect people in Europe and North America," contends UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

New vaccines under development could save the lives of up to eight million additional children a year
Bellamy told a World Bank meeting Wednesday that even when effective vaccines are being developed -- as is the case with Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) -- these may not be effective against HIV most common in Africa and Asia.

Somar Wijayadasa, a former official of the joint UNAIDS project, says most pharmaceutical companies are interested only in researching or developing products that sell in affluent markets.

The lucrative markets for new vaccines and drugs, he said, are not in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, where they are most needed, but in Western Europe and North America populated by high-income peoples.

"It is tragedy -- but it is a fact of life," Wijayadasa told IPS.

Bellamy said that despite the enormous gains of the last several decades, 12 million young children in the developing world still die every year of largely preventable ailments.

Most are struck down by such perennial killers as pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, measles and perinatal problems - and more than half of these deaths reflect the fatal interplay of illness and malnutrition. Besides these diseases, she said, there are other scourges as well, including HIV/AIDS, which is rapidly emerging as a major new cause of child mortality.

But Bellamy said there is a cornucopia of revolutionary new vaccines under development -- vaccines that could save the lives of up to eight million additional children a year in the next five to 15 years alone.

"We must find ways to promote investment in research and development (R&D) for vaccines tailored to meet the needs of developing countries, and ensure that there is a demand for them," she said. But how to expand financing for new vaccines is an important factor in ensuring coverage, she added.

Both UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) jointly advocated a system of focused financial support that distinguished between developing countries on the basis of their ability to independently absorb the cost of vaccines as well as other immunization supplies.

According to UNICEF, nearly half of the children in sub-Saharan Africa have never been immunized. From their perspective, says UNICEF, the term "new vaccine" is relative - because for all practical purposes,it means any vaccine, such as measles, whose benefits they are yet to enjoy.

"What we must do is to make a choice; either we act, or we do not"
The countries mostly in need of assistance are the world's 47 least developed countries, mostly in Africa. Of these, 32 are also classified as Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) by the World Bank.

These countries -- including Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Chad, Comoros, Mali, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan and Zambia - are desperately in need of financial support for immunization and are eligible for the lowest-tier prices for new vaccines.

UNICEF has subdivided these countries into two categories, one economically worse off than the other. But it says that both categories of countries "need a stable and reliable funding mechanism" in their quest for new vaccines for children.

"Given the need for special measures to meet the financial needs of HIPCs, should provisions not be made to assure them of free vaccines for all young children as a critical investment for the future?" Bellamy asked. "What we must do is to make a choice; either we act, or we do not. In a 28 trillion dollar global economy, it is clear that the question of economic resources is not the issue."

UNICEF has argued that the right to the highest attainable standard of health is enshrined in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. And immunization is an exceptionally useful and cost-effective way to protect and promote that right, as documented in the World Bank's 1993 World Development Report.

"All of us in the U.N. system are united in the knowledge that investing in health and disease prevention yields large dividends, not only in the reduction of human suffering, but by increasing the economic productivity of individuals, especially the poor," Bellamy said. This process, in turn, can help accelerate the economic development of entire societies.

IN 1974, when the WHO launched the Expanded Programme on Immunization, less than five percent of the world's children were immunized against the first six diseases that were targeted: diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles and tuberculosis.

Today, nearly 80 percent of the 130 million children born each year worldwide receive vaccinations against these illnesses before their first birthday.

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Albion Monitor March 23, 1998 (

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