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What are the best ways to ensure that lifesaving vaccines and medicines reach people in poor countries? How can we design efficient and cost-effective health products and health systems for places with weak infrastructure and few resources? A new partnership announced today between the World Health Organization (WHO) and PATH, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to answer these questions.

The partnership, supported by a five-year, $34.7 million Gates Foundation grant to PATH, will examine current supply and delivery systems for vaccines and other health products. The goal is to create a shared vision among national and international stakeholders and to develop a roadmap of immunization-related public health interventions. Much of the work will be conducted in collaboration with ministries of health, regional WHO offices, other nongovernmental organizations, and international agencies, engaging them directly in the design of locally relevant solutions. 

The partnership will also evaluate the feasibility of integrating the distribution of vaccines with other health products. By identifying, adapting, and demonstrating the full potential of innovative products and practices, the partnership will develop short-term solutions and long-term visions for delivering health supplies to people in need. For example, the new rotavirus and pneumococcal vaccines that were developed for industrialized countries are often supplied in expensive, single-dose packages that require between two and three times more storage space than traditional vaccines. While there is a health need for these products in the developing world, the countries simply do not have the capacity to transport and store these products while keeping them refrigerated.

“We are bringing together some of the best minds in logistics of health programs, and we will be learning from experiences in supply chains outside the health sector in order to shape the future of immunization and health logistics,” said project director Michel Zaffran of WHO. “By reaching a global consensus with major stakeholders on appropriate systems and technologies, and implementing strategies adapted to low- to middle-income countries, we will be able to promote an effective and efficient distribution of vaccines and other critical health interventions to those who need them most.”

The partnership builds on decades of successful collaboration between WHO and PATH. PATH is currently a WHO collaboration centre in the areas of human reproduction and vaccinology.  The two organizations have worked together closely in the past on the development, testing, and introduction of technologies, including the vaccine vial monitor—a “smart sticker” that flags when vaccine has been exposed to too much heat.  The vaccine vial monitor is now in use on all vaccines purchased through the United Nations. In another formal partnership, WHO and PATH are developing and preparing to introduce a vaccine that will prevent meningitis outbreaks in Africa.

In this latest collaboration, WHO and PATH will build consensus among national and international stakeholders from both public and private sectors, defining a unanimous, strategic approach for the future of immunization and other public health interventions.

Posted January 23, 2008.