Rotavirus "is a major, major public health priority" for Mexico and for the Americas, Mexican Health Minister Dr. Julio Frenk said today at the opening of a global symposium on rotavirus, where health experts will spend three days discussing the latest information about the deadly disease.

Dr. Frenk told some 400 people attending the meeting that deaths from diarrheal disease "have dropped dramatically" in Mexico, since strong measures were taken to control it after the cholera epidemic that struck the Americas in 1991.

"Vaccines can be a very cost-effective intervention and Mexico is a world leader in immunizing children, with 98 percent coverage of children under five years old and 95 percent coverage of children under one year," Frenk said.

The rotavirus symposium is being convened by the Pan American Health Organization, (PAHO/WHO), the Albert B. Sabin Vaccine Institute, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC,) and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Rotavirus, which kills half a million children each year worldwide, is the most common cause of severe diarrhea, hospitalizations, and deaths among children, said Dr. Jon K. Andrus, who heads PAHO’s immunization efforts, including the introduction of new vaccines into the Expanded Program on Immunization. Andrus said that there were 15,282 deaths from Rotavirus in Latin America and 75,000 children were hospitalized.

Though no vaccine against rotavirus is currently on the market, several are being developed and rotavirus is a high priority for developing countries with limited health services, where 85 percent of the 500,000 deaths occur, most from severe dehydration.

Vaccines currently under development could be introduced into the routine program of childhood immunizations within 1-3 years and could prevent this most common cause of severe morbidity and mortality in children. The international community has recognized the accelerated development and introduction of rotavirus vaccines as a high priority.

Experts including Andrus, Dr. Ruth Bishop, discoverer of rotavirus, Dr. Roger Glass of CDC, Dr. Albert Kapikian, inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and Dr. Ciro de Quadros of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, who led the successful polio eradication effort in the Americas, are in Mexico to discuss all aspects of rotavirus and rotavirus vaccines. Also present are vaccine industry representatives involved in rotavirus vaccine development, and experts from leading public health and donor organizations, including PAHO, WHO, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, and the Rotavirus Vaccine Program.

New data on the extent and burden of the virus in developing countries, and insights into its biology and pathology are also due to be reported at the symposium on rotavirus, being held at the Presidente Intercontinental Hotel, in Mexico City. Topics of the main sessions include epidemiology and disease burden of rotavirus, its virology, pathogenesis and immunity, past experience and results with new rotavirus vaccines, the health economic and financing of the vaccines and a roundtable on perspectives in vaccine introduction.