We can lead the fight to save children’s lives

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Expanded access to pneumococcal vaccines is a key lever to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, which include reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015, wrote UK MEP Michael Cashman for EURACTIV, casting light on inequities between rich and poor countries regarding the availability of vaccines.

The following opinion piece was sent to EURACTIV by UK Labour MEP Michael Cashman, a member of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament. He chairs the EU assembly’s delegation to South Africa and sits on the development committee. 

When it comes to the world’s most pressing global health challenges, pneumococcal disease may not be the first disease that comes to mind. Most of us think of the ‘big three’, AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, diseases that take a tremendous toll, particularly in the developing world. 

As chair of the European Parliament’s delegation to South Africa and a member of the development committee, the burden of these diseases is clear to me, as is the critical importance of the European Union’s continued investment to advance treatment and prevention.

In contrast, pneumococcal disease, a bacterial infection that causes pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, is relatively unknown despite its deadly status as the leading vaccine-preventable killer of children under five worldwide. Pneumococcal bacteria are the leading cause of pneumonia, which takes the lives of two million children every year – more than any other disease.

These facts are all the more striking when one considers that the majority of these deaths are preventable. Vaccines to protect against pneumococcal disease are widely used in industrialised countries. One reason why this killer may go unnoticed by those of us with the power to do something about it is because so few people in the industrialised world die from it. The majority of its victims are found in the world’s poorest countries where tremendous inequities exist with regard to vaccine implementation.

Estimates released by the WHO and published in The Lancet last month indicate that of the 26 countries that routinely protect their children with pneumococcal vaccines, 24 are high-income countries that represent less than one percent of the worldwide burden of this devastating disease. Putting these numbers into context, for each child who dies from pneumonia in an industrialised country, more than 2,000 children die from pneumonia in developing countries.

On Monday evening I will be joined by representatives of the Pneumococcal Awareness Council of Experts (PACE) to discuss this global health challenge and its solutions.

Historically, the cost of purchasing pneumococcal vaccines has been a barrier to their introduction in low-income countries. However, innovative financing mechanisms are making it possible for low-income countries to access safe, effective pneumococcal vaccines more quickly and affordably than ever before. Launched at the G8 finance ministers’ summit in Italy, the Pneumococcal Advance Market Commitment (AMC) guarantees $1.5 billion to develop a sustainable supply of vaccines for the world’s poorest countries and at a cost they can afford.

The European Commission and many EU member states have already made pledges to support immunisation in the world’s poorest countries through GAVI, the International Finance Facility for Immunisation and the AMC. But we can and must do more to prioritise pneumococcal disease within existing health and development efforts and encourage developing country governments to do the same.

The pneumococcal AMC offers an unprecedented opportunity for countries to protect their children from this preventable killer. Yet of the 71 countries eligible, fewer than 20 have applied for AMC funding that will save so many lives. Working with our counterparts, members of Parliament can encourage developing countries to apply for GAVI support, include the vaccine in multi-year plans, and plan for introduction.

Expanded access to essential vaccines is a key lever to achieving Millennium Development Four, a two-thirds reduction in child mortality by 2015. Immunisation is also one of the most cost-effective investments to decrease poverty and prevent longer term economic and social costs. We have the knowledge and tools to prevent this disease. Making sure that we put them in the hands of the countries that need them most is a simple step we can take to save millions of children’s lives.