Rotavirus vaccines making a global difference

From Cincinnati to Mexico to Belgium to Australia, vaccines to protect against rotavirus are significantly reducing deaths and hospitalizations from severe childhood diarrhea.

Worldwide, rotavirus causes more than 453,000 deaths a year, according to the latest mortality estimates. That’s down from a pre-vaccine estimate of 527,000 deaths a year from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Much of this early success can be traced to two vaccines – RotaTeq and Rotarix – that protect children from rotavirus. One of those vaccines – Rotarix — was developed by experts at Cincinnati Children’s.

In 2006, the WHO began recommending that nations adopt these vaccines. But it has taken several years for the vaccines to spread, and only recently has enough data been collected to reveal their powerful benefits.

The latest update on the impact of rotavirus vaccines was compiled by scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. It was published in the July edition of the Lancet Infectious Diseases, a major medical journal.

Among the findings:

• In 27 countries that made rotavirus vaccines widely available to children between 2006 and 2010, deaths have declined an average of 34 percent and hospital admissions dropped by an average of 73 percent.

• In U.S. cities, including Cincinnati, New York, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Chicago, hospitalizations related to rotavirus are down 55 to 89 percent.

• However, many nations with the highest death rates from rotavirus still have not introduced national vaccine programs.

“The next big effort is to figure out how to get these vaccines to the children who need them the most,” says David Bernstein, MD, MA, director of the Gamble Program for Clinical Studies at Cincinnati Children’s.

Bernstein, along with virologist Richard Ward, PhD, began developing and testing what became the Rotarix vaccine in 1988. This oral vaccine, now produced by GlaxoSmithKline, was approved for use in Mexico in 2004 and in the United States in 2008.

So far, rotavirus vaccines have been most widely distributed in North America, South America and Europe. If the vaccines were also widely distributed in Africa and Asia, about 200,000 more child deaths could be averted each year, the Lancet report states.

The good news: several powerful health organizations are working with manufacturers to make rotavirus vaccines more affordable for low-income nations. The GAVI Alliance includes the WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and several other organizations. The alliance has designated 73 low-income nations that need financial assistance to expand vaccination programs.

The challenge: So far, only seven of those 73 countries have introduced rotavirus immunization programs — Nicaragua, Bolivia, Honduras, Guyana, Sudan, Ghana and Rwanda.

The alliance hopes to increase that number to 40 nations by 2015.

Tim Bonfield

About the Author: Tim Bonfield

Tim Bonfield is an associate in Marketing & Communications at Cincinnati Children's. He joined the medical center in 2009 after 17 years at the Cincinnati Enquirer as an award-winning health beat writer, assistant local news editor and Butler-Warren bureau chief. Tim is a proud Cincinnati native and the frazzled father of two teen daughters.

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