Just a few months ago, thousands of children gained access to rotavirus vaccines in four states of India marking Asia’s largest national introduction to date. But over 90 million children around the world still lack access to this vital vaccine.
While it is preventable and treatable, diarrhoea continues to have a devastating toll on children around the world. It is a leading cause of child death, and is responsible for hospitalising millions more.
Rotavirus is responsible for claiming the lives of more than 200,000 children each year and results in nearly 40% of all diarrhoea hospitalisations in the world.
We have dramatically reduced diarrhoeal deaths among children under five, through providing oral rehydration solution (ORS), increasing access to clinical facilities, and improving water and sanitation programmes. However, too many children still suffer growth and cognitive impairments from serious and repeated diarrhoeal disease illnesses.
More emphasis needs to be given on preventive measures particularly vaccine, and implementation of hygienic practices and sanitation facilities.
The health and economic consequences of rotavirus ripple across families, communities, and countries. In Bangladesh, a recent study showed that a single episode of rotavirus costs the average Bangladeshi family US$ 84, or nearly 85% of the average Bangladeshi family’s monthly income.
Moreover, the total cost of rotavirus hospitalisations to the country is an estimated US$66.8 million (about 500 crore Taka) each year, resulting in major economic strain.
Yet this is entirely preventable.
We know how to stop rotavirus illnesses and deaths, and we have the tools today to do it.
Vaccination is the best tool available today to protect children from rotavirus. Rotavirus vaccines are improving health, reducing healthcare costs, and saving lives today in countries where they are in use. To make the case in point, introducing rotavirus vaccine in Bangladesh could prevent an estimated 135,000 hospitalisations yearly and protect thousands of children from sickness, malnourishment, and death.
The ROTA Council, a global body of scientific experts on rotavirus, strongly agrees with the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for introducing rotavirus vaccines into national immunisation programmes. So far, over 80 countries have introduced the vaccines, but not enough countries in Asia or Africa have taken action — the regions where burden is highest.
Compared to developed countries, there are several challenges unique to industrialising nations of Asia, including potential financing and supply. These issues are further complicated by competing priorities in public health systems.
However, several South East Asian countries have taken steps toward closing the rotavirus immunisation gap in the region. India recently initiated a phased national introduction beginning with four states. Thailand began a pilot programme in 2011. Pakistan’s EPI manager recently announced their intentions to apply for Gavi funding to introduce rotavirus vaccine, and Myanmar’s National Committee on Immunisation Practices has recommended introduction of the vaccine. These are remarkable milestones for Asia, but much work remains to protect our children from rotavirus.
In 2016, it’s unconscionable that millions of children, particularly in Asia, still suffer from a disease we have the knowledge and tools to prevent. It’s time to protect all children, everywhere, from the scourge of rotavirus.
It’s time to take action!
Shams El Arifeen – Senior Director of the Maternal and Child Health Division at icddr,b and Member of the ROTA Council
K Zaman – Epidemiologist at icddr,b and Member of the ROTA Council
Mathuram Santosham – Professor of International Health and Paediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University and Chair of the ROTA Council
Dr Samir K Saha – Executive Director, Child Health Research Foundation