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New vaccine to prevent child pneumonia and meningitis in Bangladesh

© UNICEF Bangladesh/2009/ Uddin
A four-month-old boy with his mother in Khulna, Bangladesh.

By Iftikhar A. Chowdhury

KHULNA, Bangladesh, 12 February 2009 – One recent morning, the general paediatric ward of Khulna Shishu children’s hospital, southwest of Dhaka, was crammed with patients and their attendants. Among the 16 children under the age of five admitted there – some of them crying in pain and discomfort – 12 were suffering from pneumonia.

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Temperatures drop in Bangladesh between December and February, and the wintry chill, mixed with humidity, particularly affects children. The number of pneumonia patients soars in hospitals and health facilities. In Khulna Shishu, 160 children were admitted to hospital for pneumonia in December alone.

And for those lacking access to treatment, the illness can be fatal. One in four deaths among children under five in Bangladesh is due to pneumonia.

New Hib vaccine introduced

“Most of the patients and their families come from poor background and come from rural areas”, says Dr. Quamruzzaman, Senior Consultant at Khulna Shishu hospital.

The burden mostly falls on the disadvantaged due to a lack of awareness, as well as under-nutrition and exposure to unhygienic conditions. Before bringing sick children to the health facility, parents often seek the help of unqualified local doctors. These delays make matters worse and can be fatal.

Prevention is often better than cure. Because so many children still die of pneumonia in Bangladesh, the recent introduction of the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine as part of the routine immunization programme marks an important move towards reducing child mortality.

The vaccine protects children against the deadly bacterium Hib, which causes some severe forms of pneumonia and meningitis. According to studies, the vaccine could prevent about one third of life-threatening cases of bacterial pneumonia and up to 80 per cent of probable bacterial meningitis cases in Bangladesh.

Reaching 4 million children

In 2009, a projected 4 million children under five across the country will receive the vaccine, in an effort to save at least 20,000 lives annually. During a ceremony held last month in Khulna, the Minister for Health and Family Welfare, Prof. A.F.M. Ruhul Haque, said the launch of the new vaccine was important for the welfare of all children in Bangladesh.

Thanking the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the GAVI Alliance (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization) and the Hib Initiative for their financial and technical support, he noted: “The children of Khulna division are especially lucky that this vaccination starts with them.”

GAVI will spend more than $95 million for procuring more than 27 million doses of the vaccine in 2009 and 2010.

Protection from five diseases

The Hib vaccine has been introduced as part of a ‘five-in-one’ combination vaccine that will protect children against Hib and four other deadly diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and hepatitis B. Instead of three different injections (for DPT, hepatitis B and Hib), children will only need one injection at three different times during their first year of life.

This will make it easier for health workers to immunize all children.

Salma, aunt of one-and-half-month-old Ashiqul, was one of the parents waiting for the new vaccine last month at the health centre in Atra village, a few kilometres from Khulna.

“A health worker told us about this vaccination programme and requested us to bring our children to the site,” she explained. “They said the vaccine will save our children from pneumonia – and instead of giving our children one shot after another, this injection will protect our children against five diseases.”

Koli, the mother of two-month-old Maria, added: “All I know is this vaccine will protect my daughter against severe pneumonia.”




UNICEF correspondent Natacha Ikoli reports on a new combination vaccine designed to protect children against five diseases in one injection.
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