Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The Power of Vaccines

August 19, 2013

I recently returned from a trip to Vellore, in southern India, where I had a chance to observe first-hand the clinical trials for a new vaccine that could prevent nearly 100,000 child deaths a year in India from rotavirus.

Rotavirus is a severe diarrheal disease that claims the lives of an estimated 400,000 children under five worldwide each year – mostly in developing countries where treatment for severe dehydration is limited or inadequate.

 Thanks to vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and measles deaths have dropped dramatically since 1980.

I also had the opportunity to meet with scientists at Bharat Biotech Ltd., an Indian biotech company in Hyderabad that developed and is manufacturing the vaccine in partnership with the Indian government and other partners, including the Gates Foundation.

Thanks to vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and measles deaths have dropped dramatically since 1980.

Bharat’s rotavirus vaccine represents an important step forward in the maturation of India’s scientific research and vaccine manufacturing capabilities. And it’s a reminder of the amazing progress we have made over the last 50 years developing and delivering vaccines – the most powerful and cost-effective health solutions of all time.

As recently as 1967, an estimated 2 million people were dying each year from smallpox. With the development of an effective vaccine and worldwide immunization campaign, the disease was eradiated by 1979.

A quarter century ago, polio was endemic in 125 countries and paralyzing 350,000 children every year. In 2012, there were just 223 reported cases. Thanks to vaccines, diphtheria, tetanus, and measles deaths have dropped dramatically since 1980.

Today, 12 of the world’s poorest countries are giving the rotavirus vaccine to children, and by 2015, that number will triple – and include India – protecting tens of millions of children from what until recently was a leading cause of childhood death.

So there has been some incredible progress. But we still have more work to do. It’s critical that we eradicate polio to make the world safe. We need to continue investing in global partnerships like the GAVI Alliance, to reach the millions of children in developing countries who aren’t yet receiving life-saving vaccines. (An estimated 1.5 million children are still dying every year from diseases that can be prevented with existing vaccines.)

And we must continue to work together – industry, governments, and non-profits – to accelerate the development of vaccines for diseases that continue to impose such a huge burden on people in developing countries. This is a key area of focus for the foundation because the technical challenges associated with producing vaccines for developing countries is unique: they need to maintain their potency for an extended period (1-2 years) in high heat and humidity, they need to be easily administered by minimally-trained health workers, and they need to protect people with the fewest number of doses.

Over the last few years, we have recruited a world-class team of vaccine experts and consultants to tackle these challenges. Working with partners, I’m optimistic that together we will one day live in a world free of vaccine-preventable diseases.

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