Rotavirus vaccine 'could save millions of­­ lives'

WASHINGTON — A vaccination campaign to combat rotavirus in the world's poorest countries could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children, according to a pair of studies published this week.

Around the world, more than half a million infants and children die each year from rotavirus infection, a leading cause of severe diarrhea in children under the age of 5, with more than half of the reported cases in sub-Saharan Africa.

The studies published in this week's New England Journal of Medicine found that vaccination campaigns in Malawi and South Africa reduced the rate of rotavirus infections by 61.2 percent during the first year of life, while another campaign in Mexico saw diarrheal disease rates drop by over 65 percent.

In industrialized countries, the vaccine is part of a standard pediatric immunization protocol.

"Rotavirus vaccine should be introduced immediately in high mortality areas and it should be used as a trigger to energize diarrhea control programs and improve coverage for all the proven interventions for diarrhea," John Hopkins University health professor Mathuram Santosham wrote in an editorial accompanying the studies' results.

More than 4,900 infants were enrolled in the Phase III clinical trial in Malawi and South Africa testing the Rotarix rotavirus vaccine, which is developed by British pharmaceutical group GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals.

GlaxoSmithKline and a partnership involving the non-governmental group PATH, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention co-funded the study, AFP reported Jan. 28.

The Mexico study looked at the impact of vaccination on diarrheal deaths in Mexican children between 2008 and 2009 after a phased introduction of the orally administered Rotarix vaccine.

"The efficacy of the vaccine coupled with the high rates of rotavirus incidence and severity in low-resource countries point to the dramatic potential rotavirus vaccines hold toward reducing child mortality among the world's most vulnerable populations," said African clinical trial study author Shabir Madhi.

"The vaccine can make a significant impact in global public health if investments are made to bring them to all children, particularly those in the world's poorest countries," added Madhi, co-director of the South African Medical Research Council at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.