LONDON (Reuters) - Pakistan has become the first country in South Asia to introduce a vaccine against the deadly pneumococcal disease in children, with GlaxoSmithKline's Synflorix selected for the programme.
Worldwide more than 1.3 million children under the age of five are killed each year by pneumonia and in Pakistan it accounts for almost 20 percent of child deaths, according to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).
The move comes at a time when healthcare experts are still struggling to get polio vaccination accepted in parts of Pakistan, one of the few countries where it is still endemic.
The introduction of Synflorix in Pakistan, which began on Tuesday, is possible thanks to GAVI's advanced market commitment scheme, which provides incentives for drug companies to produce large quantities of vaccines for poor countries at low cost.
"In Pakistan, with a successful roll-out we can save tens of thousands of lives," GAVI's chief executive Seth Berkley told reporters at a briefing at its Geneva headquarters. "It will make a dramatic difference in life expectancy in the country."
GSK, Britain's largest drugmaker, said it would provide a minimum of 480 million doses of Synflorix to GAVI for programs against pneumococcal disease in 73 developing countries by 2023.
GAVI also has a similar global deal with Pfizer for its rival pneumococcal vaccine Prevnar. The agency chooses between the competing vaccines in each country.
GAVI is a public-private partnership backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank, UNICEF, international donor governments and others. It funds bulk-buy immunization campaigns for poorer nations that can't afford vaccines at rich-world prices.
Berkley noted problems with Pakistan's polio eradication effort, which has been hampered by mistrust and rejection among local people, but said he expected the introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine to be smoother, and potentially helpful to the polio campaign in the longer run.
"The government of Pakistan assures us they will do everything they can to roll out this product," he said. "This is a vaccine that families understand, (along with) the importance of this disease and children dying, so it actually may help the effort."
Latest United Nations estimates show that pneumonia accounts for 18 percent of child deaths globally. In Pakistan more than 352,000 children die before they reach their fifth birthday and almost one in five of those deaths are due to pneumonia.
GAVI said that while pneumococcal vaccines cannot prevent every case of pneumonia they can prevent a significant proportion and have the potential to protect tens of thousands of children from preventable sickness and death.
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler and Kate Kelland in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Greg Mahlich)