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January 27, 2010 at 2:11 PM

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PATH-sponsored study points to success of rotavirus vaccines

Posted by Kristi Heim

It's a common virus that strikes young children in rich and poor countries alike, causing severe diarrhea and leading to more than half a million deaths a year.

Named for its wheel-like shape under a microscope, rotavirus causes vomiting and watery diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain.

Today health experts unveiled a study showing that rotavirus vaccines are an effective new tool to prevent deaths even in some of the poorest countries in the world and should be rolled out immediately where the virus is most severe.

"The widespread use of these vaccines has the potential to prevent about 2 million deaths over the next decade," Mathuram Santosham, professor of International Health and Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Sponsored by a global partnership that included Seattle-based PATH, clinical trials showed that rotavirus vaccines reduced deaths among poor populations in Malawi and South Africa. However, the success rates varied significantly -- from 49 percent in Malawi to 77 percent in South Africa.

In 2006, Mexico was one of the first countries to introduce rotavirus vaccine. Last year, deaths of children age two and under from diarrheal disease dropped by more than 65 percent during the 2009 rotavirus season, PATH reported.

Experts recommended the vaccines be combined with other measures such as clean water, proper sanitation, oral rehydration therapies following bouts of diarrhea, breastfeeding, and vitamin A and zinc supplements. The availability of oral rehydration solutions in parts of Africa and South Asia is less than 35 percent.

The study also pointed out considerable challenges to distributing rotavirus vaccines in the poorest countries, including shipping and storing the vaccine at the proper temperature.

"The storage and shipment requirements to avert cold-chain breaks of rotavirus vaccines are far greater than those of typical childhood vaccines, which will make the logistics of vaccination programs in developing countries more difficult," Santosham wrote.

Making the vaccines available at a price affordable to poor countries is another challenge -- it requires some of the cost to be paid by GAVI (Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization), which relies largely on funding by national governments.

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