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Rwanda First to Start National Pneumococcal Vaccine Program in Developing World

Pneumococcal disease – including pneumonia and meningitis – kills more than one and a half million people each year. Most of them are children. But many of those deaths can be prevented with a vaccine. On Friday (April 24th), a rural clinic in Rwanda will be the site of the first national immunization program against pneumococcal disease in a developing nation. The vaccine program is a joint effort by the Rwandan government, the GAVI Alliance, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals and PneumoADIP.

Dr. Julian Lob-Levyt, CEO of the GAVI Alliance, a public and private health partnership, is taking part in the vaccination effort.

"We'll be gathering together at a health center here in Rwanda to deliver the first dose of pneumococcal vaccine to hundreds of babies. And this first is a first in Africa in terms of the first rollout nationally of a program that's gradually going to save an increasing number of lives. But not only in sub-Saharan Africa, but the poorest countries in South Asia, Latin America and elsewhere," he says.

Dr. Orin Levine, head of PneumoADIP, an arm of GAVI, says the Rwandan vaccine program could only be achieved with international cooperation and support.

"Through that support, Rwanda will end up having a national immunization program, pneumococcal vaccine, before wealthy countries like Finland or Japan, Singapore, Austria or Poland. And that's really an indication of our ability to try to really speed up these launches and overcome financing as an obstacle to the use of vaccines where they're needed the most," he says.

He says pneumococcal diseases can have long-term economic and productivity consequences.

"Pneumococcal meningitis, for example, kills or disables up to one half of the children who get it, even with access to hospital care here in Africa. And when those children survive the children, who are disabled afterwards, often have things like learning disabilities, hearing disabilities, mental impairment that limit their educational achievement and incur costs for households and families. These are preventable disabilities and preventable economic costs with the vaccine," he says.

HIV infection and sickle cell disease make contraction of pneumococcal diseases more likely. Both are prevalent in Africa and can increase the risk of pneumococcal disease 40 fold. Levine says studies prove the vaccine is extremely effective in saving lives.

"In South Africa, the vaccine was shown to be protective, both in HIV-infected and uninfected children. And in The Gambia, in a typical, rural, West African population, the vaccine reduced child mortality due to any cause by 16 percent," he says.

Rwandan Health Minister, Dr. Richard Sezibera, says eventually the program will vaccinate 400,000 children per year.

"We are excited, not only because Rwandan children will be receiving the vaccine,whichisimportant in itself, but also excited because for the first time we are now beginning tosee, thanks to a global alliance, a determination to make sure that those with the highest disease burden also receive a share of the global finance for health. And that is important for us," he says.

The vaccine, Prevenar, was developed by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. James Connolly, the firm's vice-president and general manager for vaccines, says, "Prevenar 13 is designed to provide broad protection against 13 of the most prevalent strains of pneumococcal disease worldwide, including strains are endemic to the developing world and countries like Rwanda. To date, Wyeth has invested more than a billion and a half dollars in R&D (research and development) programs so that current and future generations are protected against the ravages of pneumococcal disease."

Wyeth is donating millions of doses of Prevenar 13 for the program. It is part of efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015.