Protection for the world's poorest countries
Editor’s note: While rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhea-related deaths, the disease was practically unheard of until the early 2000s, and there was no defense. When vaccines finally appeared on the horizon, PATH launched the Rotavirus Vaccine Program to ensure that every child had access to protection.
By the age of three, almost every child in the world has been infected with rotavirus, the most common cause of severe childhood diarrhea. In industrialized nations, where children with severe cases of rotavirus have ready access to health care, deaths due to rotavirus are rare. Globally, though, rotavirus kills hundreds of thousands of children every year—the overwhelming majority of whom live in developing countries, where lifesaving care can be hard to come by.
Oral vaccines can prevent severe cases of rotavirus. First introduced in the industrialized world in 2006, they are making a tremendous impact. Within just a couple of years of introduction in the United States, vaccines reduced hospitalizations for severe rotavirus by as much as 80 percent.
From promise to protection
As promising as these vaccines are, they are not always available in the places where they are needed most. It can take a lot longer for vaccines to become available in the developing world—in the past, as long as 15 years. That’s why we established the PATH Rotavirus Vaccine Program: to make rotavirus vaccines available where needed most, as rapidly as possible.
The program ran from 2003—when rotavirus vaccines first became a possibility—until 2008, when the program’s success led to new opportunities to tackle rotavirus. In 2006, the program helped Nicaragua make history when it introduced a rotavirus vaccine—it was the first time a developing country launched a vaccine the same year that it was introduced in the United States. Soon, hospital wards once crowded with critically dehydrated toddlers were virtually empty, providing proof of the lifesaving value of rotavirus vaccines for developing countries.
PATH also collaborated on pivotal studies of rotavirus vaccines in Africa. Informed by these results, in 2009 the World Health Organization recommended that all national immunization programs include the vaccines. Developing countries got an even greater boost soon after, when the GAVI Alliance committed to support eligible countries in Africa and Asia with the funds needed to roll out the vaccines. With rotavirus vaccines now firmly on the map, we turned our attention and resources to supporting these countries in their plans to protect children from a common killer and to speeding the development of new and less expensive rotavirus vaccines.
Why haven’t people heard about rotavirus?
Although children have long suffered from it, rotavirus was only clinically discovered in 1973. It took many years to get a sound estimate on the burden of disease and inspire the development of vaccines.
Immunization represents the most promising method for preventing rotavirus infection. The virus is so contagious and resilient that simple measures like encouraging hand-washing and providing clean water, so effective in curbing other diarrheal diseases, just don’t work well enough.
Providing rotavirus vaccines within a broader approach that brings to bear all available tools—like oral rehydration therapy, breastfeeding, sanitation improvements, and zinc—gives caregivers a better chance at making a major impact.