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A new multi-million dollar project has been launched to speed up access in developing countries to a vaccine against the world's leading cause of severe diarrhoea among children.

The goal of the three-year US$30 million venture is to ensure that a vaccine against the rotavirus is made available to children in developing countries at the same time as it is to those living in the developed world, a move that, it is claimed, could save half a million lives a year.

The project will be financed by The Vaccine Fund — the financing arm that helps support the immunisation goals of The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) — and will be led by the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a US-based non-governmental organisation.

"The project will ensure that a safe and effective rotavirus vaccine will be ready for introduction in the developing world within the next five years," says John Wecker, who will lead the project for PATH.

Wecker has previously designed and implemented the developing world HIV-related initiatives of Boehringer Ingelheim's, a German-based pharmaceutical company. At least four rotavirus candidate vaccines are at, or near, clinical trials stage, one of which it is hoped will become a global vaccine.

"This project means an end to 'business as usual' when it comes to introducing new vaccines in poor countries," says Christopher Elias, President of PATH. In the past, vaccine manufacturers have conducted trials and introduced new vaccines into countries where they hoped to get the largest profits, such as Europe and North America. In many cases, the product only becomes available in developing countries 15 or 20 years later.

The PATH project will work with vaccine manufacturers and developing country governments to finance clinical trials in developing countries and accelerate the vaccine's availability to those children who need it the most.

Globally, nearly all children are likely to suffer from rotavirus diarrhoea before the age of five. But in developing countries, where access to health care is limited, its effects are much more severe, and each year it claims about half a million lives, 85 per cent of which are in the world's poorest nations. In countries such as India or Bangladesh, one in every 250 children dies from rotavirus disease.

The PATH team will include public health experts and partners from the World Health Organisation, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and PATH's own Children's Vaccine Program. Part of their work will be to ensure that developing countries are ready for the new vaccine. For example, surveillance networks to monitor the disease before and after the vaccine is introduced will be set up, and the countries' medical community and policy makers will be educated about the public health benefits of introducing the vaccine.

"Until all children worldwide have reliable access to quality health care, the best way to avoid unnecessary deaths from rotavirus is through a vaccine," says Wecker.

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