By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - Millions of children's lives and billions of dollars could be saved if vaccines were more widely available in 72 of the world's poorest countries, according to a series of studies published on Thursday.
In studies in the Health Affairs and The Lancet journals, public health experts and scientists projected that if 90 percent of children in those countries were immunized, more than $151 billion in treatment costs and lost productivity could be saved in 10 years, giving economic benefits of $231 billion.
Some 6.4 million lives could also be saved, they found.
Yet one study, by the donor-funded Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) and the Results for Development Institute, found that poor nations are hard-pressed to pay for vaccine programs without help from outside donors.
Vaccines are considered by many to be one of the best buys for public health in developing nations because they can protect productive lives and cut the costs of health care and treatment.
According to the World Health Organization, eradicating smallpox at a one-time cost of about $100 million has saved the world some $1.35 billion a year since it was achieved in 1979.
"The idea is simple: vaccines save lives, prevent suffering, and create wealth," Richard Moxon, a professor of pediatrics at Britain's Oxford University, wrote in The Lancet.
Childhood vaccinations against diseases such as pneumococcal pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib disease, diphtheria, pertussis, or whooping cough, tetanus, measles and rotavirus are routine in wealthier countries, but many poor countries have little or no access to these products.
GAVI, which funds bulk-buy vaccination programs for nations that cannot afford Western prices, is holding a donor pledging conference in London next week when it wants to close a $3.7 billion funding gap for its commitments until 2015.
Several leading drugmakers, including GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Johnson & Johnson's Crucell and Sanofi-Aventis' Sanofi Pasteur this week offered to cut some of their vaccine prices for developing countries to try to sustain supplies via GAVI.
And the British government launched a 50 million pound ($82 mln) donation matching plan to boost GAVI's funds.
"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 Results for Development Institute in Washington.
The Health Affairs series was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a $34 billion fund devoted largely to health projects in poor countries. Gates is also a major GAVI backer.
GAVI says it has prevented more than 5 million child deaths in the last decade and will prevent 4 million more by 2015, with the necessary funds, through immunization programs that reach more than 240 million children.
In their Lancet commentary, Moxon and colleagues argued that as developing countries begin to be able to afford it, they should contribute more to health care, including immunizations.
"Most developing countries accord too low a priority to health in their budgets. They must be persuaded to take more of the burden themselves," they wrote. "Ultimately, expansion and sustainment of access to the benefits of immunization requires ownership of the program by developing-country governments and the communities they serve."
(Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Jon Loades-Carter)