A vaccine that fights pneumonia and other diseases could save the lives of thousands of children each year in Latin America, but high costs have kept it from those who need it, a researcher told a congress of health professionals Thursday.

"Pneumococcal disease has a huge impact on child health and survival in our region," said Maria Teresa Valenzuela, an epidemiologist at the University of the Andes in Chile, speaking at a regional symposium on the problem in Sao Paulo. "It kills 18,000 children every year - two children an hour."

A vaccine that fights pneumococcal diseases was introduced in the United States in 2000, and doctors said they were surprised at the effectiveness of the vaccine that fights most causes of pneumonia, meningitis, blood infections and ear infections.

"With the introduction of pneumococcal vaccine there was a 98 percent reduction in disease caused by this bacteria," Pan American Health Organization director, Jon Andrus M.D. said by telephone from Sao Paulo.

"In addition, what I think was extraordinary were the secondary benefits," he said. "When you vaccinate children you also see a reduction in the deaths of the very old."

The vaccine would be less effective in Latin America because it only fights 65 percent of the strains that exist here. But experts say that increased demand could lead scientists to develop a version that fights strains more prevalent in Latin America.

Currently governments in the region spend about $4.00 per child on vaccinations. The new vaccine by contrast costs about $53.00 a dose well beyond the health budgets of most countries.

"It's just prohibitive," said Andrus, adding the his organization is trying to bring down the cost by buying in bulk and convincing countries to reduce import taxes on the vaccine.

According to a report presented Wednesday at that Second Regional Pneumococcal Symposium, the bacteria is responsible for 1.3 million acute ear infections, 330,000 cases of pneumonia, 1,200 cases of sepsis and 3,900 cases of meningitis among children under 5 across Latin America each year.