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Gates Call for "Decade of Vaccines," Pledges Assault on Child Mortality

Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates called on the world today to launch a "decade of vaccines" that would dramatically reduce childhood mortality in poor countries—and they pledged to raise their own foundation's outlays on vaccine research, development, and delivery by 25%, to a total of $10 billion over the next decade. “We’ve made vaccines our number-one priority at the Gates Foundation because we’ve seen firsthand their incredible impact on children’s lives,” Melinda Gates said today at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

The couple cited recent advances in childhood vaccine development and delivery that have already saved millions of lives. For instance, thanks to improved basic health care programs, 79% of children in developing nations now get all three doses of the vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. A computer model developed by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, shows that pushing that number up to 90% would save an additional 7.6 million lives between now and 2020.

In an interview with NPR, Bill Gates says he wants to bring vaccination rates for measles, Haemophilus influenza type B, pneumococcal disease, and rotavirus—which causes diarrhea—to similar levels. Rapidly introducing a reasonably efficacious malaria vaccine, such as one now in phase III clinical trials, starting in 2014, would save another 1.1 million lives, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which also will support the development of new vaccines, for instance against tuberculosis.

The Gates Foundation has spent some $4.5 billion on vaccine research, development, and delivery since its inception in 1994. The past couple of years, its outlays for vaccines were some $800 million annually, a foundation spokesperson says. The new initiative will raise that to $1 billion annually.

The Gates's call was met with enthusiastic reactions from global health leaders—but some stressed that even more is needed. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organization, called the announcement "unprecedented" in a written statement, but added that it's "absolutely crucial that both governments and the private sector step up efforts" as well. "When the Gates Foundation acts, people listen," said Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington, D.C. "This announcement will ... hopefully, encourage others to invest in vaccine development, research and education."