Rotavirus Vaccine Could Save Thousands of Children

27/1/2010 - Immunization has long been known to be important for reductions in child mortality rates. The development of a new vaccine to combat rotavirus should help.

A recently published study on vaccination trials conducted in Malawi, South Africa, and Mexico has yielded hopeful results for the reduction of child mortality. Vaccinating children against rotavirus—a diarrhoea-causing disease—can potentially save millions of lives.

The trials show that the vaccine can increase child survival by reducing the prevalence of the severe form of the disease by at least 61%. In Mexico, deaths from rotavirus in infants just under a year old fell by 66%, as compared to the 2003-2006 period. A total of 4 900 children were included in the trials.

The studies were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Diarrhoeal diseases are the second-most common cause of child deaths in the developing world. Despite the fact that rotavirus is easily treatable in the developed world, 527 000 children die of rotavirus annually in the developing world, most of them in Africa.

The rotavirus vaccines are administered orally in two or three doses, the first given as early as 6 weeks. Previous studies have cast doubt over the efficacy of orally administered vaccines among poor and malnourished populations, but the vaccine was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as early as June of last year. Even in immunologically-weakened children, such as the HIV positive, any potential of the vaccine to make them sick is minimal, says Dr. Mathuram Santosham, an international health medicine professor at John Hopkins University.

The WHO urges all countries to roll out rotavirus vaccinations as part of their public health programs. However, other efforts at reducing diarrhoeal diseases such as oral rehydration therapy (mixture of salts and sugars to restore electrolyte balance and prevent dehydration), improved sanitation, access to clean water, and vitamin supplementation, should not be sidelined.

The development of the rotavirus vaccine will be important to the reduction of child mortality—currently, the 9 million children worldwide that die every year before their fifth birthdays. Maternal and child health are global priorities at the local, national and international levels, as exemplified by the events leading up to the most recent meeting of world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Here in Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that as president of the G8 this year, Canada would champion investments in the health of women and children. The PM used the example of Haiti and the relief effort there to illustrate the potential for international cooperation in his op-ed piece in the Toronto Star.

Dr. Kathy Neuzil, the head of the African rotavirus study and advisor to PATH (a charity bringing low-cost health interventions to poor countries), hopes “that these data will catalyze action so that one day we can live in a world where no child dies from diarrhoea.”