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Contact: Deborah Phillips, 206.302.4827, dphillips@path.org.

Seattle, September 1, 2010—A special supplement of the Journal of Infectious Diseases published today summarizes data that illustrate the tremendous burden of rotavirus disease throughout Africa. The supplement, “Rotavirus Infection in Africa: Epidemiology, Burden of Disease, and Strain Diversity,” compiles data on disease burden and serotype distribution from 15 countries in the continent, in addition to data from countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region.  Surveillance findings from several countries reveal a greater prevalence of rotavirus—the most common cause of severe childhood diarrhea—than previously reported. Collating data across the continent, researchers found that 40 percent of childhood hospitalizations for acute diarrhea were caused by rotavirus.

Established in 2006 by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa, the African Rotavirus Surveillance Network includes twelve sites based at pediatric hospitals in ten countries (Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). Standardized methodology provides researchers  with a comprehensive perspective of rotavirus burden across the continent. With each country’s Ministry of Health helping to coordinate the effort, the data are ensured a fast track to policymakers considering the potential benefits of adding rotavirus vaccines to national immunization programs.

“Rotavirus is taking an overwhelming toll on our children, but this evidence can also be empowering,” said Dr. George Armah, guest editor of the journal supplement and professor, Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research in Ghana, which serves as a regional reference laboratory for rotavirus surveillance. “We know that rotavirus is a major problem, but we also know that rotavirus vaccines perform well in the region. Policymakers now have the critical information they need to bring rotavirus vaccines to their countries and save thousands of children’s lives.”

Rotavirus vaccines’ performance in Africa have been closely studied over the past few years, with the first data from clinical trials on the continent recently published. Funded by the GAVI Alliance and coordinated by the PATH Rotavirus Vaccine Program—a partnership between PATH, WHO, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—in collaboration with manufacturers, studies of both available vaccines (RotaTeq® by Merck & Co., Inc. and Rotarix® by GlaxoSmithKline) demonstrated significant reductions in severe disease after vaccination.

Global data on rotavirus disease burden, along with the results of vaccine trials in impoverished countries of Africa and Asia, informed WHO’s 2009 recommendation that all countries introduce rotavirus vaccines, particularly those where diarrheal disease causes significant child mortality. Many of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

“According to United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), nearly half of all diarrheal deaths occur in low-income countries of Africa and, as these new data show, the region bears almost half the global rotavirus disease burden as well,” said Duncan Steele, senior advisor for diarrheal disease vaccines, PATH, who also served as a guest editor of the journal supplement. “Increasing the availability of rotavirus vaccines where they are needed most, including countries throughout Africa, will be pivotal in improving child survival.”

The GAVI Alliance has committed to supporting rotavirus vaccine introduction in the world’s poorest countries and is coordinating a major campaign urging donors to provide funding so that children in the poorest countries have acces to these lifesaving vaccines. Last month, at the ninth International Rotavirus Symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa, experts from around the globe formalized their support of rotavirus vaccine introduction worldwide and underscored the public health imperative to rotavirus vaccines to the developing world through a call to action that encourages greater awareness and increased donor contributions.

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