International Rotavirus Symposium convenes in Johannesburg

Global health dignitaries opened the 9th International Rotavirus Symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa today. The world’s leading experts on rotavirus will focus on the global burden and the opportunity to significantly reduce child deaths through vaccination against rotavirus in developing countries of Africa and Asia. Over 300 scientists, policymakers, and public health professionals are attending the symposium, convened by four international non-profit organizations and agencies.

Rotavirus, the leading cause of severe diarrhea, claims the lives of more than 500,000 children under five years of age every year and causes the hospitalization of millions more. Almost half of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Although six of the seven countries with the highest infant mortality rates from rotavirus are in Africa, only two percent of the continent has access to rotavirus vaccines. South Africa is the first and only African nation to have introduced rotavirus vaccine into its national immunization schedule.

“There is a serious and growing need to increase access to affordable rotavirus vaccine in the developing world, where 85 percent of rotavirus deaths occur. This need is most severe in impoverished communities where access to medical care for rotavirus is often out of reach,” said Dr. Ciro de Quadros, executive vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. “The symposium conveners, as well as the hundreds of attendees, are committed to ensuring that universal access to rotavirus vaccine becomes a reality.”

The potential impact that rotavirus vaccines could have in Africa was recently documented in studies published in the January 28, 2010 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. The studies reported on the first-ever rotavirus vaccine clinical trials conducted in impoverished communities of Africa. Conducted at sites in South Africa and Malawi, the clinical trials were designed to measure performance of the Rotarix™ vaccine, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals (GSK), among infants living in high-mortality, low-income settings. The results showed that the vaccine reduced severe rotavirus disease by nearly two-thirds in infants during their first year of life and contributed to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation that all countries introduce rotavirus vaccine into their national immunization programs.

The New England Journal of Medicine also published data from Mexico demonstrating the real-world impact of rotavirus vaccines after they are introduced. In Mexico, which in 2006 was among the first countries in the world to introduce rotavirus vaccine, diarrheal deaths in general dropped during the 2009 rotavirus season by more than 65 percent among children aged two years and younger.

“Rotavirus vaccines are a proven solution to save the lives of children. Their widespread use has the potential to save tens of thousands of young lives every year. With so many lives at risk, we must do everything possible to make them available to communities throughout Africa,” said Dr. John Wecker, director of Vaccine Access and Delivery, PATH. The clinical trial was coordinated and co-funded through a partnership between GSK and the Rotavirus Vaccine Program —a collaboration between PATH, WHO, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), funded by the GAVI Alliance. Clinical trials of RotaTeqTM, a rotavirus vaccine manufactured by Merck & Co., were recently conducted in Bangladesh, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, and Vietnam and results are forthcoming.

The WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization issued a recommendation last year that rotavirus vaccination be included in all national immunization programs, paving the way for increased access to these life-saving vaccines through financial assistance from the GAVI Alliance.

“With the availability of data on vaccine efficacy, safety, disease burden, and with commitments of financial support from GAVI and other global donors, there are fewer barriers preventing African and other developing-world nations from introducing rotavirus vaccines,” said Dr. Shabir Madhi, professor of Vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand and member of the South African National Advisory Group for Immunization. “With widespread use, we can cut child mortality and morbidity, promote development, and strive for improving child health in the developing world.”

The 9th International Rotavirus Symposium, convened by the Sabin Vaccine Institute, PATH, University of the Witwatersrand, and US CDC, will be held from August 2-3. Participants will share the latest developments in the fast-moving rotavirus prevention field including data on circulating strains, disease morbidity and mortality, and development of the next generation of vaccine candidates.

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