Fewer than five per cent of children around the world have received the 11 vaccines that the World Health Organization deems vital, experts say, and children will continue to die from vaccine-preventable diseases at an alarming rate unless the global community acts.

The warning about the need to ramp up vaccination efforts in developing countries was delivered at the Maternal, Newborn and Child Health Summit being hosted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper this week in Toronto.

Dr. Seth Berkley of the GAVI Alliance, which delivers vaccines to low-income countries around the world, told conference-goers that vaccination programs have had great success in eradicating previously devastating illnesses such as smallpox, and are making gains on polio and measles.

However, the international community must ramp up efforts to deploy newer vaccines for illnesses that kill children at an alarming rate, including diarrhea and pneumonia.

Before Berkley spoke, Health Minister Rona Ambrose sounded the alarm about the need to re-commit funding to immunization programs.

"The fact remains that a child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease every 20 seconds," Ambrose said.

Nations must continue to buy and distribute vaccines, "and we must raise awareness and community acceptance of the usefulness of vaccines," she said.

"We have the medical resources, the expertise, and the financial means to set our children on the path to a healthy life."

Berkley noted that vaccines' success rates are typically judged by how many deaths they prevent. But vaccines' true power must be measured by the quality of the immunized children's lives.

"A child who is vaccinated then goes on to have better learning, a better education, better cognitive development," Berkley said.

"And with that, there are fewer health care issues."

Some 30 children are immunized around the world every second, according to data from GAVI. That's 1,800 children per minute, or 100,000 per hour.

Vaccines are responsible for the eradication of smallpox, polio is "in its endgame," and measles' rates have been reduced by 95 per cent.

"We've created healthier lives and stronger communities," Berkley said. "This is the power of vaccine, and no other intervention touches so many lives."

While vaccination rates for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis is at 83 per cent and hepatitis at 79 per cent, immunization rates remain comparatively low for new vaccines. Coverage of the diarrhea vaccine is only 11 per cent and the pneumonia vaccine is at about 20 per cent.

Boosting immunization rates for these two ailments is crucial if the global community is to further reduce child mortality. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under age five, the WHO says.

Pneumonia kills more than 1.1 million children each year, more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Diarrhea kills more than 800,000 children per year, the agency says.

The pneumonia vaccine is relatively new, Berkley said, but was brought to market quickly under a multi-nation "advanced market commitment. " So far, the vaccine has been introduced or approved for introduction in 51 countries.

"What we want to do is take a child and put a shield around them with those vaccines protecting them from diseases," he said.

‘We're in that end mile'

Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also addressed the summit, and called immunization programs "one of the best investments that we can make in the future."

Her and her husband's foundation has made the delivery of vaccines, and the eradication of polio in particular, a top priority.

In 1998, when the World Health Assembly made eradicating polio a key goal, the disease was present in 125 countries. That number has been reduced to two, Gates told the summit.

"We're in that end mile," she said of the efforts to eradicate polio.

"What we know now is that when you make the right investments, you can unlock the potential of millions of people, many of whom today are burdened by poverty and disease. But they don't need to be."

What's next?

While only four per cent of the populations of high-income countries are unvaccinated, that figure jumps to 26 per cent in low-income countries, Berkley said. For every one percentage point jump in vaccination coverage in low-income countries, he said, 150,000 future lives are saved.

With less than five per cent of children in the world protected by all 11 vaccines recommended by the WHO, he said, work remains. (See: WHO recommendations on immunizations)

The goal of his organization will be to immunize more than 60 million children annually between 2016 and 2020.

"When someone says to you immunization is done, it isn't done," he said. "We need a global reset of immunization to make sure we get those vaccines out."

Two challenges in meeting that goal are a clunky and inefficient supply chain, as well as inadequate data from a number of countries. The international community must work on modernizing the vaccine supply chain, he said, and help establish adequate record-keeping in middle- and low-income countries.

"Vaccines are one of our best investments."