Check out this guest post from John Wecker, Director, Vaccine Access and Delivery at PATH:
Last June, the World Health Organization (WHO) made a recommendation to include rotavirus vaccines in all national immunization schedules. This was welcome news, as rotavirus is the most common cause of diarrhea-related global deaths in children less than five years old. But in order to turn welcome news into good news, we need to get these vaccines to the parts of the world that can least afford them.
First-of-its-kind data released this week in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) presents vital evidence from Africa and Mexico that demonstrates the potential for rotavirus vaccines. These studies clearly show that rotavirus vaccines can save young lives and they underscore the need for their immediate inclusion in national immunization programs across the world, particularly in those where diarrhea is a leading cause of childhood deaths.
Take Mexico, for example. During the annual rotavirus season between December and May, almost 800 infants died from severe diarrhea. Despite efforts to improve sanitation, increase the use of oral rehydration therapy (ORT), and promote exclusive breastfeeding, rotavirus continued to kill children. Then, in 2006, the government introduced a vaccine to prevent the disease. Within two years, diarrheal deaths among children less than two dropped by more than 65 percent.
In Africa—where the majority of diarrhea hospitalizations and nearly half of all rotavirus deaths occur—the vaccines hold even greater promise. The new NEJM data showed that the use of rotavirus vaccines significantly reduced severe rotavirus in African infants—preventing more than 60 percent of life-threatening infections. Now we must ensure that all African children—indeed all of the world’s children—receive this dose of prevention as soon as possible.
The clock is ticking toward the 2015 Millennium Development Goals—the target date for countries rich and poor alike to do their part in reducing child deaths worldwide. Vaccines can be costly. Fortunately, the GAVI Alliance has pledged to support rotavirus vaccine introduction in at least 44 low-income countries by 2015. This could have a tremendous impact on childhood mortality, but GAVI won’t be able to do it alone. It will take international donors, national governments, policymakers, and the larger global health community working together. And, there are some who can and should be doing more. Bill Gates said it himself in his recent annual letter.
Vaccination against rotavirus is of vital importance. But to defeat diarrheal disease, the vaccines must be part of a package, including the use of cost-effective, available interventions, such as oral rehydration therapy and zinc, as well as clean water, proper sanitation, and nutrition.
Today we are witnessing the real-world impact of rotavirus vaccines, and we can’t afford to lose momentum now. Let’s take the impact we’ve seen in Mexico and expand it worldwide. Let’s deploy the tools and strategies that already exist. Let’s fulfill our global responsibility to all of the world’s children. Or, as my colleague Samba Sow, a Malian doctor, says in our new rotavirus vaccine video below, “Let’s do it!”
You can help us do it. Spread the word and encourage others to recognize that diarrheal disease must be a global health priority. And share our video within your own communities!
-John Wecker, Director, Vaccine Access and Delivery, PATH