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UNICEF Warns of Vaccine Shortage

The United Nations Children's Fund is warning of a shortage of vaccines used to immunize children againt common diseases. The Geneva-based UNICEF says vaccine shortages are so serious they could jeopardize immunization programs for children in both developing and industrialized countries, leading to more illness, disability and death.

UNICEF buys around 40 percent of the children's vaccines used around the world and is the key supplier of vaccines to the world's poorest countries. UNICEF says it is facing a serious shortage of vaccines. It says the shortages affect virtually every category of traditional vaccine given to children in poor countries. It says similar shortages also are occurring in the industrialized world.

UNICEF Spokeswoman, Wivina Belmonte says it is becoming increasingly difficult to get vaccine supplies to immunize children against diseases such as polio, measles, tetanus and pertussis. "Right now, 10 of 14 vaccine manufacturers have partially or totally stopped production of traditional childhood vaccines," said Ms. Belmonte. "If I can put a human face to the financial problem and to the logistical problem, more than a quarter of the world's children are not immunized by the time they reach their first birthday. That means 30 million children every year grow up without being vaccinated and, indeed, that is why these kids die of vaccine-preventable diseases."

Ms. Belmonte notes measles alone kills nearly 800,000 children every year, most in the developing world. She says there is no excuse for this, when a vaccine is available for 11 cents. UNICEF calls immunization one of the great success stories of the 20th century. Since immunization became universal, three million children's lives are saved every year. But UNICEF adds that three million children continue to die every year from vaccine-preventable diseases. Ms. Belmonte says it generally requires about two years to produce these vaccines. This is considerably longer than most other pharmaceuticals.

"Part of the challenge is making sure that donor governments make commitments long enough, ahead in advance so that pharmaceutical companies think it is worth their while to produce them," she said.

Unfortunately, Ms. Belmonte says donor countries often fund immunization programs for developing countries for a single year. Thus making it difficult to make long-term commitments to vaccine manufacturers. She says pharmaceutical companies are in the business of making money. She says they are under pressure to turn over the production lines used for these older, inexpensive vaccines to newer, more profitable products.