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Five Nations Launch Vaccination Program for Poor Countries

Five nations held a ceremony in Rome Friday to launch a $1.5 billion vaccine program to save the lives of millions of children in poor nations. Pope Benedict XVI praised the initiative and encouraged the international community in the search and production of new vaccines. For VOA, Sabina Castelfranco reports from Rome.

The first global project for the development of vaccines against endemic diseases is known as AMC (Advanced Market Commitments) for Vaccines. The aim is to ensure there is secure funding for the development of vaccines urgently needed in the poorest countries in the hope of saving the lives of more than five million children by the year 2030.

Italian Economy and Finance Minister Tommaso Padoa Schioppa opened the project's ceremony in Rome.

"Ten million people die each year from infectious diseases, mostly children in developing countries," he said. "This is also an economic disaster, an appalling obstacle in the path to development."

With funding from Italy, Canada, Norway, Russia and Britain, the plan targets pneumococcal disease, a major cause of pneumonia and meningitis, which kills 1.6 million people every year.

Pope Benedict XVI, who met with finance ministers from participating nations, praised the goal of developing vaccines, saying these are urgently needed to prevent millions of people, including countless children, from dying each year from infectious diseases.

Queen Rania of Jordan attended the ceremony. She said the project would give hope to poor families.

"Today a baby born in Sierra Leone is over 50 times more likely to die before its fifth birthday than a child born in Italy and more than a 100 times more likely to die than a child born in Iceland or Singapore," she noted. "One quarter of our children still have no protection from common preventable disease."

Italy's economy and finance minister, Padoa Schioppa, says the global project is necessary because drug companies rarely focus their efforts on medications that specifically treat the diseases of the poor.

"Investment to develop these vaccines is insufficient because pharmaceutical companies find little incentive to invest in research and development of products that would mostly benefit poor countries, which may not have the money to buy them," he noted.

But now with this initiative, he says, donors can overcome this problem. With an advance market commitment, donors commit to buy vaccines if and when they are discovered.

World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz says bank has given its support to the project.

"Uncertainty about demand has limited investment and in turn limited supply has kept prices high," he explained. "On average, vaccines take 15-20 years to get to the poor at an affordable price. The AMC breaks that vicious circle which has kept [prevented] vaccines from saving lives in developing countries."

Wolfowitz adds that the legally binding donor commitment will subsidize the purchases of vaccines. And when the product meets international standards companies will been encouraged to invest.

But, he adds, developing vaccines is only half the story. If this initiative is to succeed, he says, it is necessary to ensure these vaccines reach patients, they are administered effectively and the results of the treatment are monitored. The international community, he says, must also help developing countries strengthen their health systems to give people wider access to health services.