A new way to protect babies from pneumonia

A mother with her baby who is suffering from pneumonia at the SAACID Stabilization Centre in Mogadishu, Somalia, on March 25.

Story highlights

  • Keith Klugman: Childhood infections like pneumonia is the leading infectious killer of children globally
  • We are thrilled that a new promising vaccine to tackle the leading cause of viral pneumonia is closer to reality

Keith Klugman is the director of the pneumonia team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)This summer, as I entered the hustle and bustle of a pediatric ward in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I was met by the cries of a newborn baby girl and her worried mother.

I could see that the infant was underweight and likely premature, making her more susceptible to childhood infections such as pneumonia, the leading infectious killer of children globally.
The first few days and weeks of a baby's life are the most dangerous by far. According to UNICEF, pneumonia kills almost a million children younger than 5 every year. Immediately following birth, babies are much more susceptible to infection because newborns haven't yet developed natural immunity and cannot be vaccinated for most diseases until they are more than a month old.
    Keith Klugman
    Vaccines are the closest things we have to magic bullets in protecting children from life-threatening diseases, and we believe there is a major breakthrough on the horizon that could help save thousands of newborns.
    Data available to date shows that when a pregnant woman receives a vaccine she can naturally produce antibodies that she then passes on to the baby. Therefore, immunizing expectant mothers, is a potentially groundbreaking approach that could dramatically reduce the number of child deaths.
    When the child is born, it is protected during the most vulnerable period by what is best described as a "gift from mom." We already have vaccines against pertussis, tetanus and influenza that offer this dual protection and are now widely recommended for pregnant women.
    We are thrilled that a promising vaccine to tackle the leading cause of viral pneumonia (respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV), appears closer to reality than ever. If this vaccine proves to be effective, it means we can vaccinate against pneumonia.
    Because infants can be infected before they can be vaccinated, we are working with partners to better understand how immunizing pregnant moms can also protect their babies. New data released show that vaccination against a pathogen responsible for an increased risk of pneumonia dramatically increased antibody levels in pregnant moms. More importantly, antibodies in infants were measured at between 90%-100% of the mothers' antibody levels.
    If these results are repeated in larger studies to actually show protection from RSV pneumonia, we should have a highly effective weapon to tackle a major killer that until now has eluded the global health community.
    There's still a long road ahead but to accelerate efforts, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded a grant of up to $89 million to Novavax, Inc. to develop this vaccine against RSV in high and low income countries. The funding will go toward a larger trial to better understand how effective this vaccine is for pregnant women and their newborns.
    In the past, even when new lifesaving vaccines had been licensed by global regulatory bodies such as the FDA, it could take upward of 10 years for them to reach children in poor countries. It has been a tragic irony because children in poor countries are more likely to be living in harsh conditions or to be malnourished, which can make them more susceptible to the infections the new vaccines were made to protect against.
    It's completely illogical and immoral that the poorest and most marginalized children have traditionally been the last to receive the vaccines they need most.
    In return for the grant made by the Gates Foundation, Novavax has committed to making the vaccine available at affordable prices for developing countries if it proves effective. This is a major step forward and underscores our core vision that every child, no matter where they're born, deserves the best chance to survive and thrive.
    The baby girl I saw in Ethiopia who was still too young to be named was lucky. Her mother had made the right decision to bring her to the health clinic and fortunately she didn't have pneumonia. The frontline health care workers helped give the mother the advice she needed to get through those first few dangerous weeks -- prioritize breast-feeding, make sure hands are washed frequently with soap and restrict her exposure to smoke.
    Unfortunately for too many moms and children around the world, these measures might not be enough. A new vaccine to tackle viral pneumonia would be a major scientific achievement and, more importantly, would have the potential to save thousands of lives.
    As we accelerate the new trials, our priority will continue to be reaching the poorest and most marginalized children with the life-saving vaccines they need so they can have the best start in life.