By Katy Migiro NAIROBI, Feb 14 (Reuters) - A new vaccine to protect against pneumonia, the world's leading killer of children under five, was launched in Kenya on Monday, one of 19 developing countries which will introduce the vaccine this year. Pneumococcal disease, which can cause pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis, kills more than half a million people a year, half of them children under five, according to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) which launched the campaign.
"Today's launch signifies a giant step towards the control, and possible eventual elimination, of pneumonia from the face of the earth," said Kenya's Public Health and Sanitation Minister Beth Mugo at the launch.
GAVI say it hopes to avert 700,000 deaths by 2015 through the immunisation of 90 million children with pneumococcal vaccines, but the alliance is also facing a $3.9 billion shortfall in funds needed to run its immunisation projects up until 2015.
The vaccines are being produced by drugmakers Pfizer <PFE.N> and GlaxoSmithKline <GSK.L> as part of a deal part-funded by Britain, Italy, Canada, Russia, Norway and the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation, who have invested a total $1.5 billion.
Thirty thousand Kenyan children are killed each year by pneumonia, second only to malaria.
"Most of the children we have in outpatients, most of the children in the wards have pneumonia," said Beatrice Mutai, a paediatrician at Nairobi's busy Mbagathi Hospital, which serves 380,000 slum residents.
One-third of the hospital's beds, shared by up to four young children at a time, are occupied by pneumonia patients. Mothers cradle their critically ill babies, squeezed into the back of the nurses' station for close observation.
Nasal catheters and masks delivered oxygen from one shared tank to their inflamed lungs. "It's (the vaccine) going to make a big difference because pneumonia for us is the leading cause of morbidity and mortality," said Mutai.
"Ninety percent of these children who we are seeing here will not be suffering from pneumonia or the meningitis which comes as a complication."
(Editing by Richard Lough and Kate Kelland)