Dr. Mathuram Santosham of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health has worked on the issue of rotavirus for decades. He believes that no mother should have to worry about whether or not her child will survive a bout of diarrhea.
Imagine for a moment, a mother caring for her sick child. It’s a scene that happens around the world every day. In this case, this mom is an American and her son has severe diarrhea. He is dehydrated, so she keeps him hydrated with plenty of Pedialyte from the local drug store and follows her doctor’s advice. In a few days, her little boy is feeling better and running around again. Because, as you know in the US, diarrhea is something you almost certainly recover from.
Now imagine that this mother lives in a remote village in a country like India, where safe drinking water and the medical care needed to treat severe diarrhea are not available. She tries to care for her son, but without access to the care he needs, he continues to get sicker. His kidneys shut down due to his inability to retain fluids and he dies. It’s an end mothers in many parts of the world know all too well. In fact, diarrhea is the world’s second leading killer of children.
In the best of circumstances, every child should have access to oral rehydration solution, an effective diarrhea treatment. But for those living in the poorest regions of the world without access to care, preventing children from getting sick in the first place is of paramount importance.
Fortunately, there is hope. Today, vaccines are available to protect children from rotavirus -– the most common and deadly cause of severe diarrhea -– which kills more than 500,000 children each year. These vaccines are already saving lives in the countries where they have been introduced. The problem is that they’re not yet available in all the places where they are needed most — low- and middle-income countries in Africa and Asia.
As a doctor who has worked on this issue for decades, I know vaccines are one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to prevent severe diarrhea caused by rotavirus and save children’s lives. Now the global community is coming together to make this a reality. The World Health Organization recently recommended that rotavirus vaccines be included in all national immunization programs. Data demonstrating the powerful impact of rotavirus vaccination in countries ranging from the US to Vietnam is mounting and donors are ready to help. The GAVI Alliance has committed to supporting rotavirus vaccine introduction in 44 of the world’s poorest countries by 2015.
To help advance the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in the places where they are needed most, Dr. Ciro A. de Quardos and I are forming the Rotavirus Organization of Technical Allies (ROTA) Council made up of experts representing every region of the world. The Council will focus on demonstrating to decision makers and donors alike the need for rotavirus prevention as well as the proven safety and efficacy of rotavirus vaccines as part of a comprehensive effort to protect children from deadly diarrhea. We are in the early stages of initiating the Council’s work, and in the months ahead we’ll continue to update you on our progress and let you know how you can get involved. The success of this effort will depend on the collective efforts of all of us.
Whether a child lives or dies shouldn’t depend on where they are born or if they are rich or poor — and no mother should have to worry about whether or not her little one will survive a bout of diarrhea.
Dr. Mathuram Santosham is co-chair of the ROTA Council and director of the Center for American Indian Health at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.