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Rotavirus: preventing killer diarrhea

April 29, 2014 by Jolayne Houtz

Vaccination is the best way to prevent rotavirus, which is highly contagious and resistant to traditional diarrhea prevention strategies.
A crying baby in its mother's arms is given a dose of oral vaccine.

After her children struggled with diarrheal disease, Teresa was determined to get one-month-old Vusi vaccinated as soon as she heard about the availability of rotavirus vaccine. Photo: PATH/Gareth Bentley.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malariapneumoniadiarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis.  Today, we take a look at a vaccine to protect children from the most common cause of deadly diarrhea.

Graphic with text reading, "International Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."

Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

Rotavirus is as common as it is deadly. Nearly every child, rich or poor, is at risk of rotavirus infection, the most common cause of severe, dehydrating diarrhea. But 95 percent of rotavirus-related deaths in young children happen in low-income countries in Africa and Asia, where access to lifesaving care can be limited or unavailable. Vaccination is the best way to prevent rotavirus, which is highly contagious and resistant to traditional diarrhea prevention strategies like hand-washing and ensuring a clean water supply.

The vaccines

ROTAVAC® is a new vaccine awaiting licensure in India that could transform the fight against rotavirus. At a cost of just $1 per dose, ROTAVAC will protect children at a fraction of the price of currently available rotavirus vaccines. PATH was part of a cross-sector partnership led by the government of India that developed the vaccine, providing technical support on pivotal clinical trials and manufacturing issues. PATH also is working with manufacturers in China, India, and the United States to advance other promising rotavirus vaccine candidates, some of which are now in clinical trials.

The work to stop this leading child killer doesn’t end there. Two rotavirus vaccines currently available on the global market are effective and safe, and many countries that have introduced them have seen dramatic reductions in severe and fatal diarrhea. The GAVI Alliance leads a global partnership that is working to increase access to immunization in the world’s poorest countries. Through advocacy and communications support, PATH has helped GAVI introduce rotavirus vaccines in 22 low-income countries to date.

The future

The licensure of ROTAVAC in India will pave the way to submit the vaccine for prequalification by the World Health Organization, a key step in reaching children around the world with this affordable vaccine. And our work to reach more countries with currently available rotavirus vaccines will continue, with the GAVI-led partnership aiming to reach more than 30 countries by 2015.

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