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18 Million Indian Children to be Immunized Against Five Killer Diseases

More than 18 million children in India are to be immunized against five killer diseases thanks to a $165 million grant by GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, a Geneva-based public-private partnership that seeks to protect children in developing countries from vaccine-preventable deaths. GAVI says the introduction of the so-called pentavalent five-in-one vaccine in India will go a long way toward achieving this goal.

India is a huge country. Every year, millions of new babies are born. Children are routinely immunized against diptheria, tetanus, pertussis and increasingly hepatitis B.

But, not against Haemophilus influenzae type b, often known as Hib, which causes some severe forms of pneumonia and meningitis. The GAVI multimillion dollar grant to provide the five-in-one vaccine will fill this gap.

Spokesman Dan Thomas tells VOA the Indian government's decision to introduce this combination vaccine to its population is hugely significant.

"About one-third of all the children we reach in the developing world are born in India every year," Thomas said. "So the fact that those children will be protected from these five potentially killing diseases is very, very exciting and it is basically a major step forward for the Millennium Development Goals."

One of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals aims to reduce by two-thirds the number of children who die prematurely. Globally, Hib, that is severe forms of pneumonia and meningitis, kills more than 370,000 children under five every year, nearly 20 percent of them die in India.

Children who survive often are permanently paralyzed, become deaf or brain damaged. Routine introduction of Hib vaccine prevents the majority of severe bacterial meningitis and up to one third of life-threatening cases of bacterial pneumonia.

The combination vaccine has been routinely given to children in developed countries for nearly 20 years. GAVI Spokesman Thomas says it now is being used in about 60 of the poorest countries as well.

"We are determined to make sure all our countries, all 72 of the countries that we support with money for immunization will be using this five-in-one pentavalent vaccine as soon as possible ... Children in the rich countries, in the western world routinely are immunized against these diseases," Thomas said. "We want to make sure that children in the poorest countries can also benefit from the same protection."

Thomas says in countries where the vaccine is routinely used, such as Kenya, Uganda and the Gambia, Hib disease has been practically eliminated.

The vaccine costs about $20. Children need to be vaccinated three times to be fully immunized for life.