Nairobi marked the global roll-out of the vaccine against pneumococcal disease, which claims the lives of over a million of people every year and accounts for 18 per cent of child deaths in developing nations

Kenya on Monday became the first African country to introduce a routine vaccine against pneumococcal disease, which claims the lives of more than half a million children under five each year.

At a ceremony in the capital Nairobi - attended by President Mwai Kibaki and other dignitaries - to mark the global roll-out of the vaccine, hundreds of infants received their first shots.

“The pneumococcal vaccine can help us to dramatically reduce the number of children who die from pneumonia, a killer disease that is responsible for millions of deaths globally every year,” Anthony Lake, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Agency UNICEF, said in a statement.

According to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI Alliance), which is supporting the roll-out, pneumococcal disease claims the lives of over a million of people every year and accounts for 18 per cent of child deaths in developing nations, making it the world’s biggest child-killing disease.

The GAVI Alliance is aiming to introduce the vaccine to 19 developing countries - including Nicaragua, Guyana, Yemen and Sierra Leone - within a year and hopes to reach more than 40 nations by 2015, depending on funding.

“Routine vaccination is one of the most cost-effective public health investments a government can make and we are counting on our donors to continue their strong backing for our life-saving mission,” said Helen Evans, interim CEO of the GAVI Alliance.

The body needs 3.7 billion dollars over the next five years to fund immunisation programmes in impoverished countries.

However, the financing mechanism for the programme - knowns as the Advance Market Commitment (AMC) - has come under fire in some quarters.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said the mechanism provided subsidies of 225 million dollars to two major pharmaceutical companies - GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer - and did not do enough to ensure competition from producers in developing nations.

According to MSF, emerging nation suppliers could provide a dose of the vaccine for two dollars, compared to the current 3.5 dollars.

This price difference could prove crucial in making the vaccine affordable when the GAVI Alliance support in some nations runs out in 2015, MSF said.

However, Marina Krawczyk, a spokesperson for the GAVI Alliance, said the criticism was unfounded.

“The truth is, the legally-binding AMC price that we have been able to secure is a reduction of about 90 per cent compared with the same vaccine being sold in the European Union and in the United States,” she said.

“And for the first time in history, we were able to guarantee that a new vaccine can be given to the world’s poorest children almost at the same time of it reaching children in industrialised nations,” she added.