26/04/2012 07:28 BST | Updated 26/06/2012 06:12 BST

The Vaccine Revolution

There has been an unwritten rule that it can take 15 years or longer between the introduction of new life-saving vaccines in rich countries and their widespread use in the poorest nations. It's a tragic and unnecessary time-lag that has cost the lives of many millions of children.

But national celebrations in Ghana this week to mark the introduction of two new vaccines highlight how this shameful gap is rapidly being closed. It is another exciting chapter in a story of leadership - and partnership - transforming health in the developing world.

Ghana, in fact, already has an impressive immunization program. But it is determined to go further by protecting against the world's two biggest killers of children - severe diarrhea and pneumonia.

So this week it is introducing both the rotavirus vaccine which protects against diarrhea and the pneumococcal vaccine which targets the primary cause of pneumonia. It is an historic milestone. No other African country has introduced these vaccines simultaneously. Ghana has every reason to be proud and to celebrate.

But what is also significant is that these sophisticated vaccines are being introduced so soon after their first use in the developed world. The 13 strain pneumococcal vaccine, for example, was first used in Europe only a couple of years ago. Even more remarkable, it is already protecting children in 14 other developing countries.

This is hugely important. The protective power of vaccines is vital in every society, rich or poor. But their impact is even greater in developing countries because the quality of basic health services varies so drastically.

Yet until recently, the countries which most needed these life-saving vaccines were all too often the least able to offer this protection to their citizens. Developing nations could not obtain the vaccines in the quantity they needed at a price they could afford. The result was not just millions of unnecessary deaths but a major brake on economic and social development.

But thanks to the efforts of the GAVI Alliance - an unprecedented partnership of international agencies such as the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, governments in the developing and developed world, vaccine producers, businesses and philanthropic foundations- the position has been transformed.

Huge strides have been made in lowering vaccine prices and producing quality vaccines in mass quantities. New producers in developing countries have emerged to provide more competition and guarantee supplies.

We have seen increased support from donors to help these efforts. Developing countries have made vaccination a major health priority, putting in place the systems to deliver immunization programs and helping fund the cost through their own resources. Almost all low income countries in the GAVI Alliance are now helping meet the cost of their vaccines.

The result has been that since the GAVI Alliance was set up in 2000, some 325 million additional children have been vaccinated against a wide variety of diseases, helping prevent over five million early deaths. Immunization rates in the world's poorest countries have risen to an average of 80 per cent. Ghana itself now vaccinates 94 percent of its children -- higher than in some richer countries.

The impact will go far beyond the immediate benefits to the children and their families. Healthier children can attend school and learn more effectively. They lead more productive lives. It is estimated that a one year increase in life expectancy increases labor productivity by four percent.

And compared to the cost of treating a disease and the loss of economic productivity over the long-term, vaccines provide tremendous value for money. They are easy to administer and, in most cases, offer permanent immunity. For example, for around US$7.50--less than the cost of a movie in most wealthy countries --three doses of the new pentavalent vaccine being used in many developing nations protects a child for life against five major deadly diseases.

I am delighted to be visiting Ghana this week as part of the celebrations and share the excitement about what is being achieved through vaccinations to improve global health.

I have worked in this field as a doctor and scientist now for over three decades. I don't think there has ever been a time when vaccines present greater opportunities. We can, for example, now vaccinate against the main causes of liver and cervical cancer. We could even be close to effective vaccines to combat malaria and eventually HIV/AIDS.

This week's vaccine introductions in Ghana show just what can be achieved through commitment, leadership and partnership. But we can't rest while 1.7 million children - one every 20 seconds - are still dying every year from diseases which we can prevent. We must step up our efforts so the vaccine revolution reaches every child everywhere.