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07.12.2009 Health

Rotavirus vaccine..A step forward for Africa’s children

By George Armah& Ousmane Ndiaye
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Far too many African parents are familiar with the hardships and sadness caused by diarrhoeal disease. Rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhoea, kills more than half a million children each year and hospitalizes millions more. Much of this suffering occurs in Africa – where parents struggle, often in vain, to protect their children from this devastating disease. But this is about to change.

Rotavirus vaccines are now available and could soon become accessible to all children across Africa. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently approved and recommended these lifesaving vaccines for use throughout the continent. Vaccination – generally proven to be one of the most effective public health interventions – is also the right prevention strategy for rotavirus.

After years of working toward improving the health and welfare of children, we are especially pleased to join our colleagues, as well as public health and government officials, at an upcoming conference on rotavirus. At this meeting, we hope to discuss and make recommendations regarding the immediate steps that should be taken in the months ahead to help ensure that rotavirus vaccines reach our children. We also expect to make a formal pledge to do our utmost best to help make this happen as soon as possible. This new effort is a great example of Africa's leadership to save children's lives, thanks to the West African Rotavirus Advisory Group and the Senegalese Paediatric Society.

A vaccine against rotavirus will fundamentally change how we tackle the disease. If caught in time, the symptoms of rotavirus can usually be treated through relatively simple rehydration techniques, such as salt and sugar solutions. The problem is that, despite this simple treatment, many children throughout West Africa still die of the disease. It is heartbreaking for a mother to lose a child when a preventive intervention such as a rotavirus vaccine is available. If given the opportunity to vaccinate their children against rotavirus, mothers would definitely take it.

While continuing our efforts to fight diarrhoeal diseases through improved hygiene and increased access to lifesaving rehydration therapies, we should do all we can to create the right environment to introduce rotavirus vaccines for our children.

Our children and their families deserve every intervention we can offer to help fight this disease, including effective rotavirus vaccines.

Two rotavirus vaccines have shown good efficacy after some of the largest clinical trials ever, involving over 100,000 children all over the world, and are now available for use in African children.

It is estimated that by 2025, widespread rotavirus immunization could prevent 100 million hospitalisations and clinic visits and over 2.5 million child deaths, including nearly 50,000 deaths in Ghana alone.

Ghana now has an opportunity to lead this effort to help save children's lives. The recent WHO recommendation for the global use of rotavirus vaccines allows African countries to purchase the vaccine at low cost in partnership with UN agencies and international donors. By hosting this meeting to focus urgent attention on the need for vaccination of African children against rotavirus and the available vaccination options, West Africa has shown its leadership and dedication to prioritizing vaccination against rotavirus disease. Now, policymakers, government officials and local communities need to get ready for the introduction of rotavirus vaccines.

After spending our careers promoting children's health, we have seen first-hand the burden of rotavirus in Africa all too well. This gathering in Senegal reminds us all of what we can do to help save children's lives. Moving fast to implement rotavirus vaccines is one concrete way African leaders can take action on behalf of Africa's children. It is up to all of us to give children the protection they need for a better future and to guarantee our future as a nation. Let's do it together now.

George Armah is a professor and rotavirus expert at Ghana's Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research and the chairman of the West Africa Rotavirus Advisory Board.

Ousmane Ndiaye is a professor of paediatrics at Dakar University and head of the paediatrics and neonatal unit at the Abass Ndao Hospital in Dakar, Senegal.

Development / Accra / Ghana / Africa /

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