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Science

WHO to double cholera vaccine stockpile

The WHO hopes to address global shortages of cholera vaccines by doubling its supply in 2016. Just three companies currently have the world body's stamp of approval to create these medicines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced it will double its stockpile of cholera vaccines to 6 million, taking a further step toward combating a bacterial infection that afflicts between 1.4 and 4.3 million people every year and kills roughly 142,000.

The extra production capacity will come from South Korean company EuBiologic, which has joined the WHO's pre-production program for the vaccine.

That makes it the third company to produce a cholera vaccine for the international health body.

Steven Martin, who manages vaccine stockpiles at the WHO, says his organization isn't turning away potential cholera vaccine producers - quite the opposite. The health body is in fact trying to boost demand for the vaccine so that other pharmaceutical firms might hop on board.

"People who can't afford it don't receive it," he told DW. "So what we try to do with the stockpile is reverse that cycle and turn it into a virtuous cycle of use. We try to create demand, we try to increase production, and we try to reduce the unit costs and give greater equity and access to the vaccine."

Haitians receiving cholera treatment

Haiti has suffered an ongoing cholera outbreak ever since its devastating 2010 earthquake

EuBiologics' drug is expected to be the cheapest of the three vaccines currently produced for the WHO. Shantha Biotechnics of India also produces a vaccine (1.7 euros/$1.85 per dose), as does the Swedish firm Crucell (seven euros).

Cholera is a bacterial infection that comes from contaminated drinking water or food and which causes acute diarrhea. It can result in death within hours due to dehydration and kidney failure.

Cholera can be prevented, however - and its transmission interrupted - through the use of hygiene, water and sanitation, social communication and treatment centers.

When those elements are absent, vaccines are a further weapon. Cholera is not considered an infection that can be eradicated by vaccination, however.

Vibrio cholerae bacteria

Vibrio cholerae, the bacteria that kills hundreds of thousands annually

Beyond addressing current demand, vaccine stockpiles are meant to avert, or better manage, a serious outbreak in the future.

The WHO estimates that 1.5 billion people are at risk of contracting cholera.

"Four or five years ago, you wouldn't have been able to buy 100,000 doses," Martin says. "So we've come a long way."

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