updated 9/29/2005 7:45:00 PM ET 2005-09-29T23:45:00

About 1.4 million children under age 5 die needlessly each year from measles, whooping cough and other diseases that are easily prevented by vaccines, the U.N. children’s agency said in a report Thursday.

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Major gains made in vaccinating the world’s children during the 1980s have leveled off and donor nations must understand that progress to bring immunizations to those remaining will take renewed efforts and more cash, said Dr. Peter Salama, UNICEF’s chief of immunizations.

“Everybody thought that we were progressing so well that we would just progress continually,” Salama said. “But in fact that didn’t happen.”

About 130 million children are born each year, and since 1990, about 70 percent have gotten the immunizations considered most vital. That’s up from some 20 percent under the age of 1 in 1980.

But since then, there has not been great progress in reaching the final 20 or 30 percent who need help — mainly in poor countries — and those are the places that need the most urgent attention, UNICEF said.

Salama said about $1 billion is now being spent on childhood immunization and about $1 billion more is needed to reach a goal set in 2002 of bringing vaccines to at least 90 percent of children under the age of 1 around the world by 2010.

That figure will rise to about $6 billion as new vaccines come to market for killers such as rotavirus, which causes acute diarrhea, and pneumococcal disease, which leads to pneumonia.

A UNICEF report highlighted the sharp divide between vaccinations in rich and poor nations. In 2003, 90 percent of children in industrialized nations had proper immunizations. But coverage rates in west and central Africa are just 52 percent, the report said.

It said that overall, 103 countries have 90 percent protection rate against measles, while 16 are likely to achieve that rate by 2010. Another 55 need improvements, while 16 must reverse declining immunization rates.

“There is, in my view, nothing more important than saving a child’s life, and we need to strengthen our advocacy to ensure that the funds are available to meet those goals,” Salama said.

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