The Gates Foundation Makes a Bold, $10 Billion Pledge for Vaccines

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"We must make this the decade of vaccines," declared business tycoon turned philanthropist Bill Gates today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "Vaccines already save and improve millions of lives in developing countries. Innovation will make it possible to save more children than ever before."

To put some force behind those statements, Gates, founder of software empire Microsoft (MSFT), and his wife Melinda also announced that their Gates Foundation will commit $10 billion over the next 10 years to help research, develop and deliver vaccines for the world's poorest countries. The new funding is in addition to the $4.5 billion that the foundation has already committed to vaccines to date.According to UNICEF, "Immunization is the most successful and cost-effective public health intervention." The basic vaccination series today includes three doses of DPT vaccine (combined diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis), with 79% of babies now treated globally. With hundreds of millions of babies born every year and the cost of providing traditional and new vaccines (hepatitis B and Hib) going up to $20-$40 per child, the challenge is growing only more daunting.

Still, the Gateses aim to increase the coverage to 90% in developing countries. The couple says their models show this could prevent the deaths of some 7.6 million children under 5 from 2010-2019. And when a malaria vaccine is introduced in 2014, 1.1 million more children could be saved, for a total of over 8.7 million. "Vaccines are a miracle -- with just a few doses, they can prevent deadly diseases for a lifetime," said Melinda Gates.

More Is Needed


Vaccines work by providing the immune system with a harmless agent created from the virus. The immune system recognizes the agent as "foreign" and destroys it. In the process, the immune system builds antibodies it can later use to fight off a real virus in case of infection.

The Gateses want to increase and add coverage of other vaccines such as hepatitis B and haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), measles, polio, pneumococcal disease, rotavirus (the leading cause of childhood diarrheal death), and later on malaria, among others. As more vaccines are developed and introduced, more children can be saved.

But all these efforts aren't enough, the Gateses say, and they're calling for increased investment in vaccines by governments and the private sector. Adding to their plea was World Health Organization Director-General Margaret Chan who said, "The Gates Foundation's commitment to vaccines is unprecedented, but just a small part of what is needed. It's absolutely crucial that both governments and the private sector step up efforts to provide lifesaving vaccines to children who need them most."

Joining the Cause


One sector that has been chipping in on the effort is Big Pharma. Drugmakers have been working on programs to assist developing nations. Just recently, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced it would give away access to some 13,500 potential malaria treatments, and it hopes to have a malaria vaccine ready by 2012 -- the same vaccine Gates is referring to. Novartis (NVS), too, started an initiative that aims to raise about $1 billion annually for 10 years to fund development of drugs against neglected illnesses including guinea-worm disease, malaria and tuberculosis. Other companies, including Pfizer (PFE), Merck (MRK) and Sanofi Aventis (SNY), also are developing vaccines.

And just this week, two studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that vaccinating babies against rotavirus can significantly cut deaths from diarrhea and save 2 million lives over the next decade.

With the added financial support -- and publicity -- from the Gates Foundation, healthy lives could become a reality for millions more someday, hopefully soon.
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