Global sales of vaccines grew by a healthy 16 percent last year, when sales shot up to $22.1 billion, says healthcare market research publisher .

That’s good news for pharmaceutical giants with operations in the Research triangle area: Merck (NYSE: MRK), Novartis (NYSE” NVS) and Pfizer (NYSE: PFE).

Plus, GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE: GSK) operates its U.S. headquarters in RTP.

Its researchers are forecasting vaccine sales will rise at a compound annual rate of 9.7 percent during the next five years, fueled by wider use of current vaccines and introduction of new ones. That would push sales to roughly $35 billion. Sales in 2008 were barely half as much, at $19 billion.

"The vaccine business is not without its risks, but for some companies, vaccines were the only bright spot in their portfolio in 2009," Kalorama publisher Bruce Carlson said in a statement. "It’s not a surprise therefore that development is heavy in this sector, and that will contribute to growth over the next five years."

Vaccines are a priority research area for several major pharmaceutical companies, including the top two vaccine makers, Merck & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which overtook Merck for the top spot recently. Besides developing new vaccines, they and other companies are working to boost vaccine sales in heavily populated emerging markets including China and India.

Last October, the world’s biggest drugmaker, Pfizer Inc., bought Wyeth for $68 billion partly for its expertise in vaccines — and the roughly $3 billion in annual sales from Wyeth’s Prevnar children’s vaccine. It protects against pneumococcal bacteria that cause diseases from meningitis to painful ear infections.

The world’s top five drugmakers by revenue also dominate the vaccine market: Pfizer, Merck, Novartis AG, Sanofi-Aventis SA’s Sanofi Pasteur unit and GlaxoSmithKline, in descending order.

Vaccines, usually given as injections or liquids, rev up the body’s immune system to produce antibodies that can later fight off attempts by bacteria or viruses to infect a person.

That can make them a public health bargain, particularly in developing countries. But many of the newer vaccines geared to wealthier countries command very high prices — $300 or more for the three or four doses many require. Those include Prevnar and vaccines against cancer-causing human papilloma virus from Merck and GlaxoSmithKline, called Gardasil and Cervarix, respectively.

The Kalorama report noted that sales of children’s vaccines, which account for more than half of the market, are growing at a faster rate than adult vaccines. That trend is expected to continue for the next five years.

Growth of pediatric vaccines is led by Prevnar and a couple of other pneumococcal vaccines and by combination vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, according to Kalorama. Vaccines against hepatitis and flu — boosted by the global scare over the H1N1 flu epidemic last year — have been driving sales of adult vaccines.

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