More than 3,000 Rwandan children die every year from diarrhea. But health officials say that’s about to change with the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine. Rwanda is the latest in a growing number of African countries to receive the vaccine.
It’s estimated that worldwide more than 1200 children die each day from rotavirus infection. Almost all of them are in developing countries.
“Rotavirus is the leading cause of diarrhea. In fact, in Africa, 40 percent of children who are hospitalized for diarrhea have rotavirus. And therefore it’s a major killer causing a lot of the child mortality that still exists on the continent,” said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Alliance, a Geneva-based public-private health partnership.
“Rwanda of course is a country that has enormous attention to public health. It’s done a very good job. They have an immunization rate that’s greater than 95 percent. But they still have children that die of diarrhea and particularly rotavirus. The expectation is that about 3,500 Rwandan children die every year from rotavirus diseases, accounting for close to 10 percent of all the under 5 deaths,” he said.
Berkley said virtually all of those deaths can be prevented.
“We’re in the process of trying to get this out to all of the countries. So since 2006, 28 GAVI eligible countries have been approved to receive it. And so we’re trying to scale-up even more than that although obviously it takes time to get it out to all the countries and some are more prepared than others,” he said.
Asked whether parents in developing countries have expressed fear over the vaccine, he said there’s actually more hesitancy in developed nations.
“Parents don’t remember what these diseases are like and they think we don’t want to take any risk with our children, you know, maybe we’ll just skip them,” he said.
He said parents in developing countries have a much different prospective that comes from first-hand experience.
“The interesting thing of course in these countries everybody sees these diseases around them all the time. They’ve lost relatives to these diseases, friends, family members and so when these vaccines rollout in these countries there tends to be an enormous demand from the population for them,” he said.
Berkley is the founder and former head of IAVI, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. He said he foresees the day when an HIV vaccine will become part of routine immunizations.
“Absolutely, and in fact it probably won’t start as childhood immunizations. I suspect as soon as a vaccine is available – and obviously it can’t be soon enough – we expect it’ll start I n high-risk groups and then in adolescents,” he said.
The second biggest killer of children under 5 is pneumonia. Berkley says pneumococcal vaccine is rolling out even faster than the rotavirus vaccine. Rwanda has already made it part of its immunization program and was one of the first developing countries to do so.