LONDON Australia will pledge A$200 million ($210 million) at an international donor conference on Monday to support a global vaccines alliance seeking to save the lives of 4 million children in poor countries by 2015.
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd told Reuters the aid would be given over three years from 2011 to 2013 and set a "high standard" for others at the London conference to match.
In an exclusive joint interview alongside Rudd Sunday, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said he was confident Australia and other donors would stump up all of the extra $3.7 billion needed by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) to fund its programs though to 2015.
"What I see across the international community is a growing commitment to vaccinations ... as one of the most effective forms of aid delivery," Rudd said. "This is a good investment."
GAVI, a non-profit organization which funds bulk-buy vaccination programs for poor nations that cannot afford Western prices, says if it gets the extra $3.7 billion it needs, it can prevent 4 million child deaths by 2015 with immunisation campaigns reaching more than 240 million children.
Its current focus is to provide poor countries with childhood vaccines against diseases such as pneumococcal pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib disease, diphtheria, pertussis or whooping cough, tetanus, measles and rotavirus.
VACCINES NOT JUST FOR "RICH KIDS"
"These are vaccines that rich kids all get, and the irony is that the rich kids are less susceptible to these diseases," Gates said. "But tomorrow, the success that I'm almost certain we will have will give us the money to buy them for all the world's children."
Gates, the founder of Microsoft who now has a $34 billion foundation devoted largely to health projects in poor countries, rejected criticism of GAVI, which some critics say still pays too high a price for vaccines, effectively boosting the profits of large pharmaceutical companies.
"We work hard to know exactly what the costs of making these vaccines are, and the same profit-minded thinking that I developed at Microsoft is brought in an even tougher sense to this work -- because every dollar affects how many lives you save," he said.
Vaccine-preventable disease kills an estimated 2.4 million children a year, according to the World Health Organization. GAVI says its programs have already prevented 5 million child deaths in developing nations in the past decade.
Several leading drugmakers, including GlaxoSmithKline, Merck , Johnson & Johnson's Crucell and Sanofi-Aventis' Sanofi Pasteur last week offered to cut some of their vaccine prices for developing countries to try to sustain supplies via GAVI..
"We're driving down the prices of these things phenomenally," Rudd said. "And our interest is to drag as much value for money out of each vaccination as possible."
In a later speech he said Australia's extra funding pledge would enable GAVI to immunise an estimated 7.1 million children.
High-level representatives from the United States, Australia, Britain, Brazil, Canada, the European Commission, France, Germany, Japan and others are expected to be around the table at Monday's conference.
Gates said that despite "tough times in terms of developed world budgets," what he called the "magic" of vaccines as a public health measure had persuaded many cash-strapped governments that supporting GAVI was worthwhile.
"As people are looking at the effectiveness of aid, some things are jumping out as particularly effective," he said.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Kevin Liffey)