New rotavirus vaccines significantly reduce child deaths

Photo credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

We’ve dedicated a lot of space on this blog to rotavirus — a disease that is the most common form of childhood diarrhea.

Diarrhea is something we often think of as gross or annoying, but it’s easy to forget that diarrhea is deadly, causing nearly 500,000 deaths each year primarily in Asia and Africa.

We’ve also dedicated a lot of blog posts to the GAVI Alliance, because among other things, they’ve been a driving force behind an effort to accelerate access to a vaccine for rotavirus to children in the developing world, alongside partners like Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, PATH, the WHO and the CDC.

But developing a new vaccine for resource-limited settings is a challenging process that takes years of hard work and a lot of money — and it’s a process that’s certainly not guaranteed to work. Which is why today we’re celebrating big news out of medical journal The Lancet: two sets of clinical trials in Asia and Africa showed that new rotavirus vaccines can significantly reduce child deaths.

The Asian trial took place in Bangladesh and Vietnam, testing the efficacy of the vaccine (essentially, how well it protects against disease) in more than 2,000 infants. The study showed that the vaccine had 48.3 percent efficacy against severe disease. When combined with other efforts to improve child survival — oral rehydration salts, zinc, exclusive breastfeeding and improved hygiene and sanitation — diarrheal deaths could be reduced even more.

The African trial, which took place in Ghana, Kenya and Mali, also demonstrated that the rotavirus vaccine offered significant protection for young children. In fact, vaccination reduced severe cases of rotavirus by 64 percent in the first year of life. These findings were consistent with those from a previous study conducted in Malawi and South Africa.

While the percentages from the studies may not seem overwhelmingly high (We’re using a vaccine that works only half to 60 percent of the time?), the vaccine actually represents a critical tool that will help control one of the major killers of children around the world. Even with these lower efficacy rates, we have to remember that the rotavirus vaccines will still have a huge impact on reducing severe disease in Africa and Asia because so many more children are dealing with disease there than in the United States or Europe.

But how well a vaccine prevents against disease doesn’t tell the whole story, either, because the health care systems in the developed and developing world are vastly different. If a child gets diarrhea in the U.S., a parent can easily access medicines to treat him or her and — in worst case scenarios — take their child to the hospital for emergency care. But because medicines and health facilities are tough to access in much of the developing world, rotavirus vaccination can be a child’s only chance at survival against diarrhea in Africa and Asia.

Major congratulations are due to all who have worked on rotavirus vaccine development and studies to date, and an additional debt of gratitude is owed to the parents who volunteered their children for the trials. We’re thrilled at the news and for what it means for the health of children and families across the developing world. We’ll keep you posted with more on the vaccine and efforts to deliver it in the field in the coming months!