Cuban researchers have developed the first synthetic vaccine against the bacteria that causes pneumonia and meningitis, the main cause of almost half of the infections of children under five in the developing world. According to UNICEF, haemophilus influenzae type B kills one half million children each year.

The vaccine specifically protects against heaemophilus influenzae type B, a bacteria which cases upper respiratory illness, primarily affecting very young children. The disease is a leading cause of meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord coverings that can cause brain damage, deafness or death.

The research on the new vaccine, already tested and put into production in Cuba, was presented to experts from around the world at a biotechnology conference in Havana in November. According to Reuters news service, the vaccine is the first made for humans with a chemically produced antigen. “It took us six years, but what could be more precious for society than to have healthy two-month-old babies,” said Dr. Vicente Verez, head of the University of Havana’s Synthetic Antigens Laboratory.

Verez added that poor nations that depend on pharmaceutical companies for the vaccine – costing $3 a dose – will now have a much less expensive alternative. Clinical trials conducted in Cuba showed a 99.7 percent success rate in developing the required antibodies.

Although almost eliminated in the U.S., meningitis remains a problem in developing countries where the cost of the current vaccine has prevented widespread immunization.

Cuba could not afford the conventional vaccine, which appeared a decade ago, so it turned to its own medical and biotechnology industry, one of the most advanced in the Third World. It has also developed a hepatitis B vaccine that is exported to more than 30 countries.

The author, a retired professor of medical anthropology, can be reached at