Diarrhoea is one of the world’s leading causes of child illness and death, and rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhoea.
Each year, rotavirus diarrhoea kills about 200,000 children in countries around the world and hospitalises hundreds of thousands more, despite the fact that safe, effective vaccines exist that can protect children from this disease.
Rotavirus is highly contagious, and every child is at risk. Infants and children under the age of 2 years face the greatest risk of infection. Rotavirus causes gastroenteritis, an inflammation of the stomach and intestines. It primarily infects the small intestine, destroying the surface tissue and preventing the absorption of nutrients, causing diarrhoea.
Typical symptoms can range from mild, watery diarrhoea to severe diarrhoea with vomiting and fever.
While mild to moderate dehydration caused by rotavirus infections can be treated with oral rehydration therapy (ORT), children who develop severe dehydration often require intravenous fluids and hospitalisation. 2 out of every 5 diarrhoea-related hospitalisations among children under age 5 are caused by rotavirus. For those who survive, rotavirus infections can have a lasting impact.
It can take up to 2 months for the intestine to fully repair itself after a moderate to severe case of rotavirus. As the intestine repairs, children cannot absorb nutrients as well, which means that during crucial stages of development, they grow significantly less than children who have not been sick with rotavirus diarrhoea.
Children who suffer from an episode of moderate-to-severe diarrhoea — from infections like rotavirus — are weakened and malnourished. They are more susceptible to the next illness that strikes, and have a more than eight-fold increase in their risk of death from any cause in the 2-3 months following an episode of diarrhoea.
Treating rotavirus is expensive. In Bangladesh, treating just one episode of rotavirus can amount to nearly 85% of the average family’s monthly income.
Because children can become infected with rotavirus and other causes of diarrhoea more than once, preventing illness in the first place is critical.
Rotavirus vaccines save lives and improve health. There are two World Health Organisation (WHO) prequalified, orally administered rotavirus vaccines available.
Rotavirus vaccines are already saving lives and improving health in the countries where they are in use. Rotavirus vaccines have been shown to provide broad protection, even against strains not included in the vaccine. Rotavirus vaccines have also been shown to reduce hospitalisation from all-cause diarrhoea.
The benefits of vaccination are substantial and far exceed any low-level risk associated with vaccination. Not only does vaccination reduce the health burden of rotavirus, it also reduces the economic burden that families face when their children get sick.
WHO recommends that rotavirus vaccines be introduced into every country’s national immunisation programme, particularly those where diarrhoea is a leading cause of child death.
While at least 80 countries have introduced rotavirus vaccines nationally, more than 100 have not including Bangladesh.
Over 94 million infants lack access to rotavirus vaccines. Less than 25% of infants in Gavi-eligible countries currently have access to the vaccine. More must be done to reach children living in the places where diarrhoea, such as rotavirus, is a major public health issue. Millions of illnesses and tens of thousands of deaths could be prevented through rotavirus vaccination.