Ramping up the global availability of vaccines could save the lives of 6.4 million children over the next decade, according to new research estimates published Thursday.

Two studies in the journal Health Affairs looked at the impact of extending vaccinations so that the vast majority of children in 72 of the world's poorest countries would be immunized.

The estimates are based on 90 per cent vaccination rates for pneumococcal pneumonia, diptheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, rotavirus, malaria, and the influenza Hib.

Besides the lives saved, researchers also made a compelling economic argument in favour of a major increase in vaccination rates.

They estimated that such a major vaccination initiative would produce economic benefits of $231 billion over 10 years — the economic value of the lives saved — and would save a further $151 billion in treatment costs and lost productivity.

Such a program would prevent 426 million cases of illness, the researchers said.

Preventable deaths

Currently, about 2.4 million children die every year from illnesses that could be avoided by vaccines, the World Health Organization says.     

A third study — also published in Health Affairs — found that poor countries would need help to cover the cost of introducing new vaccines.

"Without major assistance from international donors, the poorest countries will be hard-pressed to pay the costs to reach all of their children with life-saving vaccines," said Helen Saxenian of the Washington-based Results for Development Institute and one of the study's authors.

This study was conducted by the donor-funded Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) — a public-private partnership that helps to underwrite the cost of vaccines in the developing world, where many countries cannot afford western vaccine prices that can sometimes top $50 a dose.

Earlier this week, a number of major drug companies — including GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-Aventis — agreed to cut the prices they charge poor countries for some vaccines delivered through the GAVI program.