Child vaccines out of reach for developing countries, charity warns

Children in poor countries remain unprotected against a disease that kills one million kids each year because of skyrocketing vaccine prices, Doctors Without Borders warns.

Cost to fully vaccinate a child 68 times more than in 2001, Doctors Without Borders says

Public health officials say 20 per cent of deaths before age five are from pneumonia and diarrhea illnesses, which can be partly prevented with new vaccines. (Olivier Asselin/GAVI/Reuters)

Children in poor countries remain unprotected against a disease that kills one million of them each year because of skyrocketing vaccine prices, Doctors Without Borders warns.

The charity called on pharmaceutical companies to cut the price of the pneumococcal vaccine from $7 to $5 US per child in developing countries ahead of an international donor conference in Berlin at the end of January. It says an Indian vaccine manufacturer plans to sell its version at a target price of $6 US in the next few years.

Even at the current lowest global prices, the introduction of the newest vaccines against pneumococcal and diarrheal diseases and the human papillomavirus that can cause cervical cancer has boosted the cost to fully vaccinate a child to 68 times more than in 2001, the group said in a report Tuesday. 

In 2001, it cost 67 cents to vaccinate a child against tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio. In 2014, the cost rose to at least $32.09 to immunize against another six diseases, such as rotavirus and HPV.

"Donors will be asked to put an additional $7.5 billion US on the table to pay for vaccines in poor countries for the next five years, with over one third of that going to pay for one vaccine alone, the high-priced pneumococcal vaccine," Rohit Malpani, policy and analysis director for the group’s access campaign, said in a release.

"Just think of how much further taxpayer money could go to vaccinate more children if vaccines were cheaper. We think it’s time for GSK and Pfizer to do their part to make vaccines more affordable for countries in the long term, because the discounts the companies are offering today are just not good enough."

The charity is concerned that countries whose wealth is improving such as Indonesia and Bolivia, that currently receive support through a vaccine alliance called Gavi, will no longer qualify in less than a year.

Canada gave $295.6 million US to Gavi for 2011-2015 and plans to pledge $500 million US in Berlin, the group said.

"I think vaccines are the single greatest public health initiative in the history of health," Dr. Shawn Bugden, who teaches at the University of Manitoba's College of Pharmacy, told CBC News on Tuesday.

"There's a moral imperative for the drug companies to take a very careful look at the level of their profits and make sure that they're in line particularly for developing countries with low incomes so that vaccines can get to those countries."

Sheldon Jacobson of the University of Illinois has watched the market shrink from dozens of manufacturers to two in some cases. Jacobson called for more collaboration and co-operation to counter the pricing power of vaccine manufacturers.

In a response to the report, GSK said its pneumococcal vaccine is one of the most complex its manufactured and is already deeply discounted for Gavi-eligible countries.

"At this level, we are able to just cover our costs. To discount it further would threaten our ability to supply it to these countries in the long-term. Nevertheless, we continue to look at ways to reduce production costs and any savings we make we would pass on to Gavi," GSK said in a statement.

Pfizer Canada said the pricing report fails to recognize the public health value of pneumococcal vaccines, which reduce the burden of disease and save lives.

Pfizer said countries that no longer qualify for Gavi support will receive a 10 cent discount on a portion of the price of its Prevenar 13 vaccine through 2025.

"As opposed to criticizing pricing as if it is the sole barrier to access, it is vital to continue an open dialogue about how best to achieve a sustainable vaccines access environment," a spokesman for Pfizer Canada said in an email.

With files from CBC's Karen Pauls