Cost of rabies vaccine limiting use in Africa

The prospect of GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) malaria vaccine arriving in the next two years has raised hopes for preventing disease in Africa, but more work is needed in other areas. This week brought hope a vaccine can tackle hookworm, but also news that cost is limiting the impact of a vaccine against rabies that could prevent 24,000 deaths a year.

The New York Times reported on the hookworm vaccine, revealing that a clinical trial is set to start in Africa next year. Hookworm rarely causes deaths, but is nonetheless a significant problem for 600 million of the world's poor. The worms enter the bloodstream through the feet, are coughed up from the lungs and swallowed back down into the intestines. Once here, they begin sucking blood, causing anemia, stunted growth and learning problems.

Sabin Vaccine Institute is developing a vaccine to prevent the disease and has already started a Phase I trial in Brazil. Trials are also set to take place in Gabon. As a non-profit, Sabin is focused on making low-cost vaccines, but the economics in some fields are different. These differences have a major effect on the lives of people in Africa. At a conference in Senegal this week, rabies experts told reporters the high cost of a vaccine is one reason the virus is still killing 24,000 people a year in Africa. Globally, 55,000 people die of rabies every year.

A vaccine is available, but a four- to five-dose regimen at $13 a dose is prohibitively expensive for many of those affected by the virus. "This is the disease of the poorest of the poor who can't afford the vaccine," Dr. Herve Bourhy of France's Pasteur Institute told reporters from Reuters and other news organizations. Novartis ($NVS) and Sanofi ($SNY) both produce rabies vaccines.

- read the NYT item (sub. req.)
- here's the rabies piece