Dr. Clarisse Loe Loumou of GAVI’s Civil Society Organization Constituency makes a major announcement that will affect the health of millions of children around the globe.
During my years of practice in the largest pediatric hospital of Cameroon in Yaoundé, I remember that the 300 beds were rarely empty. I was in charge of the gastroenterology and paediatric nutrition ward, where 28 beds were occupied more than 90 percent of the time by infants who were dehydrated and suffering from severe diarrhea.
Our problem was not the diarrhea itself — its treatment protocols are well known; oral re-hydration salts, adequate re-nutrition, zinc supplementation, intravenous (IV) fluids for the most severe cases — but in making real the possibility of preventing severe diarrhea. It was and still is common for children in Cameroon and other parts of Africa who are suffering from severe diarrhea to die due to limited access to oral re-hydration salts, IVs, clean drinking water, or even the inability to reach a hospital in time.
Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in children under five years of age worldwide, killing more than half a million children each year and hospitalizing millions more. Nearly 50 percent, or 230,000 of those rotavirus deaths, happen in Africa. Worldwide, more than one third of the 1.34 million diarrhea deaths in children under five years of age, and 40 percent of the 9 million diarrhea-related hospitalizations are due to rotavirus disease. In Africa, the percentage of rotavirus-related hospitalizations is even a bit higher at 41 percent. These facts may be little-known, yet diarrhea remains the primary cause of child mortality in Africa. In Cameroon, diarrhea is the third highest cause of death in children under five years old. Thirty percent of those diarrheal deaths are due to rotavirus.
We need to draw attention to the devastating role of rotavirus in causing death to millions of young children. My hopes of delivering a rotavirus vaccine across all of Africa must one day become a reality, not only to prevent hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths, but to boost our fight against poverty.
And let’s not forget the economic costs of diarrhea; of hospitalization, of medications, of parents or caregivers who must stop work, and of young lives lost. This leads to a vicious circle, where diarrhea that is inadequately treated can cause malnutrition, which can decrease immunity and lead to further re-infection with diarrhea or other diseases. Vaccination offers the best hope for preventing severe rotavirus disease and the deadly dehydrating diarrhea that it causes.
I am proud that in July 2011, with the support of the GAVI Alliance, Cameroon introduced a vaccine against pneumococcal disease, the leading cause of pneumonia, and aims to introduce the rotavirus vaccine in 2013. None of this would be possible without political will, the active contribution of donors, and the efforts of the Government of Cameroon and its Immunization Programme, which have made the environment conducive to helping these life-saving vaccines reach the children who need them most.
I am delighted that our children are finally going to be protected against the main causes of diarrhea and pneumonia, the world’s two biggest killers of children under five and the leading killers here in Cameroon. There is no reason for such unjust deaths, and we now eagerly await the rotavirus vaccine to reach us in 2013.
Dr. Clarisse Loe Loumou, pediatrician and member of the Steering Committee of the GAVI Civil Society Organization Constituency.