SEATTLE, Washington — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with Pfizer to develop a vaccine for pregnant women that will protect newborns. Increasing vaccine access to this biotechnology will be a challenging and vital task.
Group B Streptococcus infection is a leading killer of infants around the world. Nearly one in four mothers carry the bacteria, yet most of these women will be asymptomatic. However, during vaginal deliveries, the bacteria can infect a newborn due to the general lack of sophistication of infant immune systems. Mortality rates for the disease vary from between six and 14 percent in developed countries to between 14 and 38 percent in the developing world. The main complications of the disease affect the lungs, brain and spinal cord through sepsis, pneumonia and meningitis. Up to 40 percent of infected infants will be handicapped from the illness.
Increasing vaccine access is an incredibly effective and efficient method of preventing morbidity and mortality. The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) Global Immunization Division estimates that existing vaccines save two to three million lives annually. The CDC estimates that since the inception of the Vaccines for Children campaign in 1994, vaccination development and implementation has prevented 21 million hospitalizations, saved $295 billion in direct healthcare costs and $1.38 trillion in indirect societal costs in the U.S. alone.
Despite the importance of routine vaccinations, distribution is far from egalitarian. Every year 130 million children are born, and the CDC estimates that of these, 21.8 million will not receive crucial vaccinations. Seventy percent of these children live in just 10 countries.
Increasing vaccine access can drastically reduce disease burden, yet it can take a long time to have a global impact. Cases of polio saw a worldwide reduction from 350,000 in 1988 to 1,300 in 2004 based largely on vaccines becoming more available, but effective vaccines had been available since 1954. If a malaria vaccine is invented soon (one million individuals die from malaria per year, the majority being children under five) how long will it take to reach rural parts of Tanzania or Mozambique where the disease affects more than 10 percent of the population?
At the forefront of drug delivery to those most in need, Pfizer is a leader in its field as a partner of the Gavi Alliance (a worldwide group of governments, NGOs and companies promoting vaccines). Pfizer has pledged up to 740 million doses of its 12-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine to Gavi Alliance countries, which comes only a year after its launch in the United States and the European Union. Typically, drugs arrive in developing countries 10-15 years later than in developed countries.
Pfizer distributes cash grants to NGOs in emergency situations and after natural disasters, and has donated long-lasting contraceptive products in Puerto Rico to inhibit the deformities associated with the Zika Virus. The quick dissemination of the new B Group Streptococcus vaccine could save countless lives if community partnerships and strategic implementation efforts prove as effective as they have been in the past.
On its web page, Pfizer states that “having a limited income should not limit access to medicines, so Pfizer is taking steps to improve access to prescription drugs”. If more companies can find ways to balance profit margins with the needs of the community, crucial medicines will become accessible to those who are most vulnerable. With increasing vaccine access, disenfranchised communities will be able to achieve more sustainable paths to health and prosperity.
– Patrick Tolosky