WASHINGTON - Global efforts to immunize children against life-threatening diseases set a record high last year but failed to protect millions of youngsters in the world's poorest countries, health officials said on Wednesday.
A joint report by the World Health Organization, United Nations and World Bank said 106 million babies under the age of 1 were vaccinated in 2008, while a record 120 vaccines became available against a host of diseases from measles and flu to meningitis and a virus linked to cancer.
The data provide a snapshot of an immunization boom that has tripled the global vaccine market to $17 billion in eight years and set off a renaissance of vaccine development aimed at AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and dengue fever.
The report coincides with new efforts to provide the world with a vaccine against the H1N1 flu that WHO declared a pandemic in June.
Immunization, in a downward spiral before 2000, has gained momentum in recent years partly through a financing partnership among WHO, the U.N. childrens' fund UNICEF, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The partnership, known as the GAVI Alliance, also includes drug makers such as GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Novartis AG, Crucell NV, Merck & Co. Inc., Sanofi Pasteur and Wyeth.
As a result of recent efforts, vaccines now reach more than 200 million children in developing countries.
But the report also acknowledged significant shortcomings in the immunization campaign, saying that 24 million infants -- almost 20 percent of the children born each year -- did not receive first-year-of-life vaccinations that are common in the wealthiest countries.
The children who missed out typically live in poorly served remote rural areas, deprived urban settings, fragile states and strife-torn regions, mostly in Africa and Asia.
The report said a major push was under way to protect children in difficult-to-reach areas.
It estimated that an additional investment of $1 billion would be needed to ensure that new and existing vaccines are available to all children in the world's 72 poorest countries where preventable diseases take their deadliest toll.
Rising demand for immunization has been a boon to manufacturers in the developing world, which now meet 86 percent of global demand for traditional vaccines against disease such as measles, whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria.
But so-called middle-income countries are not eligible for financial assistance from the GAVI Alliance, even though many of their people live on less than $2 a day. That makes it hard for them to afford new vaccines against pneumococcal disease, rotavirus diarrhea and the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical, penile and head and neck cancers.
Even at greatly reduced prices, the cost of new vaccines ... are individually greater than the cost of all other traditional vaccines combined, the report said.
Still the report said immunization was partly responsible for the first documented decline in annual deaths among children to below 10 million. Clean water, sanitation and better care were the other contributing factors.
The report also credited immunization with helping to bring about a 74 percent drop in worldwide deaths from measles between 2000 and 2007.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)