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A new initiative has been launched to provide affordable rotavirus and pneumococcus vaccines for the world's poorest nations.

The US$200 million project — launched yesterday (29 November) by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) — will help poor countries purchase three new vaccines against diseases that together kill about 1.5 million children every year in the developing world.

Rotavirus causes diarrhoea and vomiting, whilst pneumococcus is a major cause of pneumonia, meningitis and blood poisoning.

Two rotavirus vaccines — Rotateq and Rotarix — have approval for use in Europe and the United States, and are currently undergoing trials in Asia and Africa (see Double vaccine victory over rotavirus).

The pneumococcus vaccine Prevenar has already been proven effective in a number of countries.

GAVI will fund vaccine purchases once the three vaccines have World Health Organization approval, expected by 2008.

The initiative "could cut child deaths by nearly 4 million by 2025," said Orin Levine, who directs the Pneumococcal vaccine Accelerated Development and Introduction Plan, a GAVI-funded promotional team.

In developing countries, high costs and poor understanding of the dangers and treatments for these diseases means it normally takes 10-15 years before affordable vaccines are available.

But GAVI hopes to reduce this lag-time to 1-2 years, making them available by spring 2008.

This, it says, will be achieved by seriously cutting purchase costs while raising awareness among manufacturers in poor countries of the high demand for such vaccines.

The world's 72 poorest countries — whose per capita income is below US$1,000 — can join the initiative, Michel Zaffran, deputy executive secretary of GAVI, told SciDev.Net.

Discussions will start to determine the cost of subsidy for each country — the level of which will be means-tested. The response has already been positive said Zaffran, citing recent huge interest in India for rotavirus vaccines.

John Wecker, the director of the rotavirus vaccine programme for global health charity PATH , said it would be "a major step forward in reducing the inequality in access to vaccines in developing countries".

Zaffran says the fund comes from a variety of donors, including ten governments, and will go towards vaccine purchase and delivery, technical assistance to help countries decide whether to introduce a vaccine, surveillance activities both before and after vaccine introduction, research into vaccine demand, and communication activities to inform countries and their partners of a vaccine's potential.

He says currently only Nicaragua has introduced Rotarix into its public health system, thanks in part to GAVI funding.