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Vaccine Therapies Need Boost - Scientists PDF Print E-mail

© Neena Bhandari, Inter Press Service

SYDNEY, Apr 14 (IPS) - While millions of children’s lives have been saved as a result of a successful worldwide campaign to boost vaccination programmes, governments across the world are failing in following through on their commitments to health aid and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).


‘’Wealthy countries such as the G8 members continue to content themselves with largely symbolic gestures. We have to make sure that the pledge made by governments (on MDGs)is followed," eminent medical scientist Gustav Nossal told IPS.

Global resources for fighting AIDS, Tuberculosis and malaria now total eight billion US dollars a year. "The amount should be several times more than this. After all, we are only talking about the price of a couple of jet fighters. That’s all you need to save several million lives," says Nossal, warning that despite the generosity of wealthy philanthropists and ordinary citizens governments needed their "hands held to the flame".

An estimated 2.3 million deaths a year have been prevented by the increase in vaccination levels. Measles deaths had fallen by 60 percent since the vaccination campaign was stepped up and the aim is to slash measles deaths by 90 percent by 2010.

"Apart from vaccination there has also been significant progress in delivering advanced anti-AIDS drugs to more than two million Africans a year -- a feat which many had claimed was impossible. However, it should be seven million," says Nossal, a consultant to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Nossal was among medical scientists who participated in the three-day Sir Mark Oliphant Vaccine and Immunotherapy Technologies conference which concluded in Canberra on Friday.

The conference put the spotlight on how vaccines and immune system treatments under development today have the potential to protect the world against the main killer diseases -- cancers, HIV, Tuberculosis (TB), Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and H5N1 avian flu.

While HIV is still proving a 'slippery’ vaccine target, research using an animal model at the University of Melbourne has shown that immunotherapy can be used to reduce levels of immunodeficiency virus in the body. The immune system can be primed to attack the HIV virus more strongly, making it fitter to fight off the incidental infections and immune breakdown that lead to AIDS.

Prof. Stephen Kent of the University of Melbourne said: "We infuse fresh blood cells which have been mixed with peptides or short proteins spanning the virus. We have found these induce a very strong immune response, enabling the body to fight off both the immunodeficiency virus and other opportunistic infections in laboratory models."

Kent said that immunotherapy was ‘’simple, easier to deliver, should have less side-effects and can be used in conjunction with anti-retroviral drugs’’.

In Third World countries where modern drug treatment is difficult and expensive to deliver and administer, immunotherapy offers hope, but Kent says a possible challenge is HIV’s innate ability to change itself to counter measures taken against it.

Another killer disease threatening to become a pandemic has been SARS. In 2002-2003, SARS affected 8,000 people, proving fatal for 774. While scientists have made some progress in understanding the mysterious corona virus that causes SARS, there is still no effective way of stopping it.

Prof. Zihe Rao, president of Nankai University in Tianjin (China), and his team are working to design a drug that will prevent the SARS virus from reproducing. By using a unique fusion of 21st century molecular science with Chinese traditional medicine, they are seeking to design potent inhibitors of the virus’s ability to replicate.

While the quest for a SARS vaccine continues, Rao believes that it is equally important to have drugs which can fight the infection.

"If we know the atomic structures of the proteins in a virus, we can understand how the protein works and we can then design compounds that effectively stop the protein from functioning. These compounds can be developed into drugs that block the virus’s ability to replicate -- and so stop it from spreading," added Rao.

Another dreadful disease posing major threat of a possible pandemic is H5N1 avian influenza. The WHO says the H5N1 strain of avian flu has so far killed 236 people and millions of poultry in countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Laos, Egypt, Romania, Turkey, Russia and most recently India.

WHO and disease-control centers worldwide regard controlling avian flu on the farm as a top priority. Dr. Peter Daniels of the Australian Animal Health Laboratory says stronger conventional disease control efforts may be necessary to check emerging strains of the H5N1 avian flu virus in Asia.

"The problem is compounded by the fact that bird flu is evolving separately in all these different countries, and in some cases it may require more than one vaccine per country to deal with the different strains," said Daniels. "For this reason we are urging that countries like Indonesia put more effort into controlling transmission in the first place. We need to stop infected poultry from moving round the country transmitting disease, and to stamp out outbreaks of these new strains at source.’’

Meanwhile, an Australian research team from the Centenary Institute led by Prof. Warwick Britton has made encouraging progress in developing two new vaccines for TB.

TB affects up to 20 million people worldwide and kills almost two million every year. It is estimated that two billion people, equivalent to a third of the world’s population, have been exposed to TB at one time or another, some of whom remain latent carriers of the disease. Of these, one in ten goes on to develop TB, adding around nine million new cases a year.

TB has developed resistance to many of the drugs commonly used to control it and is now on the increase again in both the developing and developed worlds. While BCG (Bacillus Calmette-Guérin) vaccine has been used for almost 90 years, in some parts of the world where TB and other mycobacterial infections have reached epidemic proportions, BCG offers little or no protection.

The two new vaccine approaches focus on improving protection against TB in previously vaccinated adults and a new vaccine to protect infants.

The other near fatal disease is cancer, which in the next 20 years will become the commonest form of death in the world. There are two vaccines against Hepatitis B, which causes liver cancer, and against the human papilloma virus which causes cervical cancer and genital warts; and more vaccines for preventing infectious organisms that cause cancer are on the way.

Prof. Ian Frazer, developer of GARDASIL, the world’s first cervical cancer vaccine, and chairman of the conference said: "Immunotherapy treatment for cancer patients is also a ‘glass half full’. Infectious diseases remain a global problem, and vaccines are the best hope for their worldwide control in the 21st century."

The cutting edge of vaccine technology and global research was the focus of the Canberra conference that attracted leading scientists and vaccine developers from Australia, Asia, Europe and the United States.

"There are newer vaccines and more money coming for vaccines research, purchase and delivery. In many of the poorest countries, the Gates Foundation is helping in both the human and physical infrastructure for vaccine delivery," Nossal told IPS.

"While companies like to do research on diseases of the First World, we are seeing a renewed commitment for research on vaccines for the Third World such as Malaria, HIV, acute respiratory disease, diarrhoeal disease and meningitis," added Nossal.

© Copyright Neena Bhandari. All rights reserved. Republication, copying or using information from any content is expressly prohibited without  the permission of the writer and the news agency through which the article is syndicated.

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