Millions of children die each year from preventable diseases because they do not have access to the right medicines, the World Health Organisation warned on Thursday.
About two thirds of the 10 million children under five expected to die in 2007 could have been saved if they had been treated with child-specific medicines, the WHO said.
"Children metabolise differently from adults. They therefore need different dosage forms... child-specific medicines are those manufactured to suit the age, physical condition and body weight of the child taking them," the WHO said in a statement.
There is a need for greater research into, and development of, child-specific medicines, as well as greater access when such products do exist, said Hans Hogerzeil, the WHO's director of medicines policy and standards.
The WHO has launched a four to six-year programme to tackle the issue by increasing the number of studies into the development of paediatric medicine; simplifying registration and regulatory requirements for new medicines; and ensuring greater efficacy and transparency in clinical trials.
The problem is particularly acute in developing countries, where otherwise healthy children can still die from easily preventable diseases such as diaorrhea, WHO assistant director general Howard Zucker told journalists.
"In the developing world, you have millions of children dying as a result of something as simple as diaorrhea and dehydration, and that's just a terrible situation which we should surely be able to reverse," he said.
Diaorrhea can be easily treated with oral rehydration salts plus zinc, but there is little interest in manufacturing this product by major pharmaceutical companies because of the lack of demand in the developed world, the WHO official noted.
He called on pharmaceutical manufacturers, governments and health authorities to all give greater priority to this problem, saying it is a case where a different marketing model is required.
WHO scientist Sue Hill noted that both the United States and European Union had developed "incentive" schemes to encourage research and development into child medicines where an obvious profit motive might not exist.
"When you combine that with the technological advances you have in developing medicines right now... there are a lot of things coming together in the mix that make this an opportune time to try and really push for medicines for children over the next few years," she said.