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Immunization can drive economic growth, Harvard expert says

Mexico City, July 8, 2004 (PAHO)—Immunization programs can be highly effective tools for promoting economic growth and poverty reduction in developing countries, according to Dr. David Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. David Bloom
Dr. David Bloom, of the Harvard School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy HSPH)

Bloom's remarks at the Sixth International Rotavirus Symposium here underscored the potential benefit of upcoming new vaccines against rotavirus, a disease that kills 608,000 children every year, representing 39 percent of the 1.56 million deaths from all diarrhea worldwide.

"A ten-year gain in life expectancy translates into nearly one additional percentage point in annual income growth," Bloom said. "This is significant given that the world economy grows by 2-3% a year. Ten-year life expectancy gains are within the grasp of many developing countries."

A major means of increasing life expectancy is to lower the infant mortality rate, which can vary by a factor of more than 50 between developed and developing countries, Bloom said, and one of the main ways to decrease infant mortality is through vaccination against childhood diseases.

Approximately six million children a year succumb to communicable diseases, many of which could be prevented by expanded access to immunization. Based on the latest figures reported at the meeting, rotavirus causes approximately ten percent of those deaths.

Rotavirus is considered by experts to be a particularly promising disease to target for global childhood vaccination. "Rotavirus vaccines are the low hanging fruit for new vaccine development," said Roger Glass, chief of the Viral Gastroenteritis Section at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. "The science of rotavirus vaccines is well understood, in a way that is not true for malaria, TB and HIV. The disease burden is large, so the benefits will be great."

Bloom calculated that the rate of return of investment in immunization falls in the range of 12 to 18 percent, placing it on par with investment in basic education as an instrument of economic growth and development. Nonetheless, Bloom and other speakers pointed out that vaccines will be of benefit only to the extent that they are accessible and affordable.

Dr. Julio Frenk Mora, Mexico's Secretary of Health, noted the need for "prevention through the universal application of a safe vaccine that is both affordable and effective."

Two vaccines are currently in the final phase of clinical trials, each with more than 60,000 children. One is being developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the other by Merck. The quest for vaccines has taken on added urgency, according to experts at the rotavirus symposium here. In Mexico, a vaccine could cut the 2,000 rotavirus deaths a year in that country by 40 percent, said Dr. Romeo Rodriguez of the National Immunization Council of Mexico, who noted that Mexico was likely to be the first country to introduce a vaccine against Rotavirus now under development, perhaps by next April.

The rotavirus symposium was convened by the Pan American Health Organization, (PAHO/WHO), the Albert B. Sabin Vaccine Institute, the CDC, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Some 400 experts are in Mexico to discuss all aspects of rotavirus. Leading public health and donor organizations, including PAHO, WHO, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the Rotavirus Vaccine Program are making presentations.

Contact: Daniel Epstein of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) at the Intercontinental Hotel in Mexico, 52 55 53277700, or Bernice Wuethrich at (631) 220 7869, or Raymond MacDougall of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, at 301 793 4949.