Philippines leads Southeast Asia in preventing rotavirus

This blog post is reprinted from the Manila Times with permission from the author. For more information about the enormous burden of rotavirus disease in Asia and the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in the Philippines, check out PATH’s RotaFlash.

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DIARRHEA is a leading killer and cause of illness in children in Southeast Asia, and many do not realize that a major cause of childhood diarrhea is a virus called rotavirus. The Philippines will soon become the first country in the region to provide rotavirus vaccines to its most vulnerable children. Rotavirus mainly causes illness in young children living in areas where there is a significant risk of dying from severe diarrhea and vomiting. The good news is that most of these deaths can be prevented with vaccines and managed with simple treatments, if available and accessible.

Department of Health Secretary Enrique T. Ona recently announced that the Philippines will introduce safe and effective vaccines against rotavirus—the most common cause of severe, deadly diarrhea—into the country’s national immunization program. Rotavirus is the second leading killer of Filipino children under 5, taking the lives of 3,500 children each year.

This move will make the Philippines the first country in Southeast Asia to adopt the World Health Organization’s recommendation that all countries include rotavirus vaccines in their national immunization programs. The Philippines joins 30 other countries in taking a stand against rotavirus and the deadly diarrhea that it causes. Countries that have introduced rotavirus vaccines have seen swift and significant reductions in hospi-talizations and deaths caused by severe diarrhea. The decision will prevent the unnecessary deaths and hospitalizations of thousands of Filipino children.

While you may not be familiar with the term rotavirus, you almost certainly suffered from it as an infant or young child. Nearly everyone in the world—regardless of wealth, ethnicity or geography—is at risk of rotavirus infection.

Rotavirus is found everywhere and is an incredibly resilient virus. It is easily from spread person-to-person through contaminated hands and objects. While every child is vulnerable, children under two are the most susceptible to severe rotavirus infection. The transmission of other causes of diarrhea can be adequately stopped by improving water quality, sanitation and hygiene. But not so rotavirus transmission, which makes prevention through vaccination the best way to protect children.

In addition to severe diarrhea, rotavirus can also lead to vomiting, abdominal pain, fever and dehydration. The virus becomes deadly when it leads to severe dehydration, which often requires urgent medical care and intravenous fluids. This care can be out of reach for many in the poorest areas, making prevention essential to protecting child health.

In the Philippines, more than three-quarters of children contract severe rotavirus before reaching age two and nearly one-third of all diarrhea-related hospitalizations in young children are due to rotavirus.

The Philippines’ poorest communities, where the greatest number of diarrhea-related deaths occur, will be the initial focus of the rotavirus vaccine campaign. The government aims to reach 700,000 newborns in impoverished communities across the nation beginning this spring.

While the important progress in the Philippines cannot be overstated, there is more work to be done to reach all of the children who stand to benefit from rotavirus vaccination, particularly those living in other Asian countries, where rotavirus takes the lives of 188,000 young children each year—accounting for nearly half of all global rotavirus deaths. It is our hope that this monumental move by the Philippines government catalyzes action throughout the region.

Dr. Lulu Bravo chaired the 13th Asian Conference on Diarrheal Disease and Nutrition (ASCODD) held January in Tagaytay City where the Department of Health announced the new rotavirus vaccine campaign. She is a professor of Pediatric Infectious and Tropical Diseases at the University of the Philippines Manila and executive director of the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination. Dr. Tony Nelson is a professor in The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Department of Pediatrics, a member of the ROTA Council and was a speaker at ASCODD.