Berlin panel: vaccines save lives and economies

Experts meet to discuss vaccinations and their significance in pulling developing countries out of a vicious cycle of poverty and disease. [Kristian Fetz]

Vaccinating Against Poverty workshop. Berlin, 25 June. [Kristian Fetz]

An estimated 1.5 million children will die from preventable diseases this year because they do not have access to vaccinations. At a June 25 workshop hosted by EURACTIV Germany, experts discussed current opportunities and challenges for health development in the world’s poorest countries. reports

“Ten people die of AIDs, malaria and tuberculosis worldwide ever minute”, said Stefan Kaufmann, director of the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin. There are still not any effective vaccines for these diseases, he said.

At a workshop hosted by EURACTIV Germany, the tuberculosis expert spoke of a “perfect storm”, urgently warning of a “duo infernale” consisting of HIV and tuberculosis. Kaufmann said the duo is responsible for the vast majority of deaths among those infected with HIV.

The event, titled “Vaccinating against Poverty” took place on 25 June, in cooperation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Berlin, where development and health experts met to discuss the crucial significance of health and vaccination campaigns in developing countries.

Every year, 1.5 million children under the age of five die of preventable diseases. Meanwhile, the international community has been aiming for the last 15 years to reduce infant mortality rates by two-thirds within the framework of the Millennium Development Goals.

But if the current rate of advance continues, this target will not be reached until 2028, predicted Christina Schrade, CEO of the development policy consulting firm SEEK Development. This means that 35 million more children will die of disease in the interim, she said.

A vicious cycle of disease and economic stagnancy

“In most developing countries, there is still a dominance of infectious diseases,” said Walter Seidel from the European Commission.

The department head for health at EuropeAid outlined a vicious cycle of diarrhea and respiratory diseases, pneumonia and malaria, leading to malnutrition and thereby further weakening the immune systems of the sick. This not only creates a problem for those affected, but also for their countries of origin, Seidel indicated: People weakened by disease are not productive. Likewise, those who cannot work do not contribute to the economic development of the country.

The central role that a healthy population plays in an economy has been proven, for example, by a recent Mexican study. According to this research, the health factor alone makes up 30% of long-term economic growth in the country.

Here, vaccinations can offer a particularly effective means of improving overall health within a population.

“Vaccination can save more lives than world peace would if we had it”, said Marwin Meier from the relief organisation World Vision Deutschland, quoting the words of economists from the so-called Copenhagen Consensus.

“The investment case for health is there,” Meier said.

Kaufmann, too, agreed with the idea: “For every euro that we spend on vaccination, in the end we will save €20 through the non-occurrence of diseases.”

Marcus Koll from the health department of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development also shares this appraisal: Avoiding negative effects yields a higher return on investment, he said.

Here, Koll pointed out an estimate made by the global vaccine alliance GAVI indicating that $60-80 billion was saved in the last 15 years as a result of a $12 billion investment.

GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, is a public-private partnership located in Geneva, Switzerland. Its goal is to save children’s lives and improve the livelihoods of people in poverty stricken countries by offering them access to vaccines.

The organisation has immunised 440 million children since 2000, preventing an estimated 6 million deaths.

Tuberculosis: “Our medicines have become blunt”

The achievements of vaccination campaigns can be clearly seen, but experts warn against too much euphoria. As easy and effective of a remedy vaccination is, future challenges are enormous, they argue.

This can partially be attributed to a lack of awareness regarding existing problems, in Germany as well, said Kaufmann. Tuberculosis, for example, does not play a role in the minds of Germans any more, he explained.

130 years ago, the picture was far different. At that time, TB was responsible for every third death. Given that the disease came with a high level of suffering for those infected, researchers went to great lengths to discover improvements in diagnosis and treatment, Kaufmann indicated. A vaccine was developed and antibiotics were discovered. As a result, tuberculosis cases gradually fell until the disease seemed to have been conquered, he said.

“The book of tuberculosis, it seemed, was closed. But unfortunately this was completely wrong”, Kaufmann continued.

As tuberculosis sunk into oblivion and medicines and vaccines were not further developed, the disease continued to wreak havoc in developing countries. Meanwhile disease pathogens continued to develop.

“Microbes are life forms,” that continually change and adapt, Kaufmann explained. The result: “Our medicines have become blunt. Resistance has the upper hand.” Today there is no vaccination against the most common form of tuberculosis, he said, pulmonary tuberculosis.

For this reason Kaufmann called on politicians to invest more money in research for new vaccines. The money could also promote vaccine development through GAVI, he said, as the vaccine alliance significantly increases the demand for vaccine doses and gives producers an incentive to develop new vaccines.

2015: The German GAVI year

At the beginning of 2015, Germany will host GAVI’s so-called replenishment conference. The goal is to mobilise an additional $7.5 billion to vaccinate 300 million more children over the next five years. If this goal is achieved, an additional 5-6 million lives could be saved, Schrade said she hopes.

According to Seidel, the EU currently contributes €25 million to fund vaccinations. This financing is secured within the budgetary period up to 2020. Germany also supports GAVI with €30 million annually.

But Meier believes this sum is too low: Germany is dragging its feet, remaining far behind the recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO), he said.

“That money is not enough,” said Meier. “100 million would be a fair contribution from Germany to financially support GAVI.”

It is unlikely that Germany will fully meet the NGO’s demands. But this year the contribution for GAVI is supposed to be increased to €38 million, said Koll, and this contribution is expected to increase over the next few years.

German tax monies are well-invested at GAVI, Koll is convinced. Plus, as host of the replenishment conference, Koll said Germany is likely to push for successful achievement of 2020 financing goals, among the other contributors.

Because of advances in medical science, children can be protected against more diseases than ever before.

Some diseases that once injured or killed thousands of children, have been eliminated completely and others are close to extinction, primarily due to safe and effective vaccines.

One example of the great impact that vaccines can have is the elimination of polio in many countries.

Polio was once one of the world's most-feared diseases, causing widespread death and paralysis, but today, thanks to vaccination, there are only small number of reported cases.

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