Health experts meet in Asia to discuss preventing deadly childhood diseases

The deadly diseases pneumonia and meningitis kill an estimated 1.8 million children under the age of 5 years across the globe every year. Of these, more than 700,000 occur in the countries in the South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Experts are meeting in Malaysia to focus on two particularly concerning vaccine-preventable causes of pneumonia and meningitis: the bacteria Haemophilus influenzae type B (or "Hib") and Streptococcus pneumoniae.

The Bi-Regional meeting on "Preventing Childhood Pneumonia and Meningitis with Vaccination" is being held on March 30 and 31 in Kuala Lumpur. This event is being organized by WHO's regional offices for South-East Asia and the Western Pacific, UNICEF and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (now the GAVI Alliance) - Hib Initiative and The Pneumococcal Vaccines Accelerated Development and Introduction Plan (PneumoADIP). "Emerging data suggest a higher disease burden for pneumonia and meningitis than previously thought in some Asian countries. Vaccination has been shown to be an effective intervention that would protect Asian children from these serious diseases today. Now is the time to make a decision on introduction of these vaccines or to implement plans to gather additional data needed to support decision-making" said Dr Thomas Cherian, Acting Coordinator, Expanded Programme on Immunization Plus, WHO, Geneva.

The participants will review the regional burden of Hib and pneumococcal disease, and share lessons learned and case studies from Asian countries tackling both infectious diseases. Experts will also examine challenges such as resource allocation, supplies, and advocacy issues related to the introduction of the Hib vaccine and propose innovative strategies to overcome them in the near future.

Vaccines are available to protect children and adults from pneumonia and meningitis. For more than 15 years industrialized countries have been routinely vaccinating children for Hib, and since 2000 there has been a steady introduction of a vaccine for pneumococcus. The GAVI Alliance has stepped up efforts to improve access to vaccines against both diseases for children living in developing countries.

Last year the GAVI Alliance launched the US $37 million Hib Initiative, which comprises infectious disease experts from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and WHO. An estimated 3.1 million cases of Hib disease occur each year in children under the age of 5 years, resulting in approximately 386,000 deaths.

"Children in developing countries should have access to these vaccines just like children here in industrialized countries," said Rana Hajjeh, MD, Project Director for the Hib Initiative. "The recent recommendation from WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) on immunization supports global expansion of Hib vaccine programs. We all believe it is important to examine the evidence and move quickly to save children's lives. "

The burden of pneumococcal disease in the developing world is even higher, with an estimated 800,000 deaths occurring each year among children under 5. PneumoADIP is a $30 million GAVI initiative based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that is working to decrease this burden by increasing access to life-saving vaccines.

"Safe, effective vaccines against Hib and pneumococcal disease are available now," said Dr. Orin Levine, Executive Director of PneumoADIP. "We must do everything possible to assure countries have access to these life-saving vaccines. The price of inaction is hundreds of thousands of unnecessary and preventable child deaths each year."

http://www.preventpneumo.org or http://www.HibAction.org

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