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Rotavirus Vaccine Could Save Millions Of Children In Developing Countries, Studies Find

Efforts to vaccinate “infants against rotavirus could save the lives of millions of children in developing nations who would otherwise die from the diarrhea-causing disease, two new studies show,” HealthDay/BusinsessWeek reports. The studies track diarrhea deaths among children vaccinated against rotavirus in Africa and Mexico and appear in the Jan. 28 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine (Thomas, 1/27).

“Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea, which kills more than 500,000 children under 5 every year, nearly half of them in Africa,” Reuters writes. Widespread use of rotavirus vaccines in the developing world could prevent the deaths of two million children over the next decade, according to the new service (Fox, 1/27).

In one study, researchers gave infants from Malawi and South Africa the rotavirus vaccine, and found the vaccine reduced their rate of rotavirus by more than 61 percent during the first year of life (Nadhi et al., 1/28).

In a second study, researchers compared the deaths from diarrheal diseases among Mexican children under the age of 5 before and after Mexico’s Ministry of Health integrated the rotavirus vaccine as part of its national vaccination programs (Richardson et al., 1/28). According to Reuters, “‘In Mexico, which in 2006 was among the first countries in the world to introduce rotavirus vaccine, diarrheal disease death rates dropped during the 2009 rotavirus season by more than 65 percent among children age 2 and under,’ the non-profit organization PATH and the GAVI Alliance, both of which promote vaccination in the developing world, said in a joint statement.”

In the same statement, the CDC’s Manish Patel, who was a co-author of the Mexico study, said, “Mexico had previously instituted interventions, including improved sanitation, use of oral rehydration, breastfeeding, and vitamin A supplementation, but diarrhea-related deaths during the December-to-May rotavirus season still remained high. The reduction in mortality following vaccine introduction points to the importance of immunization against rotavirus as a primary prevention tool in controlling diarrhea not just in Mexico but around the world,” Reuters reports.

The Reuters article includes comments by Thomas Breuer, head of global clinical research and development and chief medical officer of GlaxoSmithKline, a company that manufactures a rotavirus vaccine, and Tachi Yamada, president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program (1/27).

“We now have another powerful weapon to add to our armamentarium to combat deaths from diarrhea – rotavirus vaccines,” Mathuram Santosham, of Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the studies, wrote in an accompanying editorial. “The vaccines should be introduced immediately in areas with high mortality from rotavirus infection, and their introduction should be used to energize diarrhea-control programs and improve coverage for all the proven interventions for diarrhea” (1/28).

The study results were shared with the WHO prior to their publication, which informed the agency’s recommendation last year that rotavirus vaccines be integrated into developing countries’ immunization programs, HealthDay/BusinessWeek reports.

According to Kathleen Neuzil, senior advisor for immunization at PATH and co-author one of the vaccine studies, before the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization would recommend the rotavirus vaccine for children in developing countries, they needed proof the vaccine would be effective, according to the news service, which adds, “The WHO’s recommendation is critical, Neuzil said, not only for influencing health-policy decisions, but for starting the flow of aid and philanthropic dollars to pay for rotavirus vaccination programs” (Thomas, 1/27).

Inter Press Service adds that “while public health officials praise the rotavirus vaccination’s potential to combat child mortality and improve children’s health in Africa and Mexico … the successful implementation of this recommendation presents a real and serious challenge in poor and middle-income countries.” Such challenges, as Santosham outlined in his editorial, include the storage and shipment of rotavirus vaccines, program implementation and vaccine cost (Suozzi, 1/27).