A few drops will save our children’s lives

Tuesday June 7 2011


Every day, children die needlessly from a little-known disease with a devastating impact.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhoea — and one of the most easily preventable.

Rotavirus kills more than 500,000 children under five years around the world each year, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

As a paediatrician, I’ve seen first-hand the devastation caused by rotavirus. In Kenya alone, it is responsible for more than 7,000 deaths each year. It threatens our nation’s future by targeting children.

The true tragedy, however, is that much of this death and suffering could be prevented right now if children had the same access to life-saving vaccines as children in industrialised countries, where the disease barely has an impact.

In the US, rotavirus vaccines have been widely available for five years, even though the disease only killed a handful of children a year. Here, where the need is much greater, they are not an option for the vast majority.

Vaccines are some of the best long-term investments to prevent disease and give children a healthy start to life — a few shots or drops can protect a child for a lifetime.

And they are some of the most cost-effective interventions in a country like ours with many competing priorities.

Oral vaccines have been shown to provide significant protection against the disease. But until today, they have been too expensive for poor countries, where health resources are scarce.

But this past week, there is new cause for optimism. Children in developing countries will get access to the vaccine.

On June 6, the GAVI Alliance, an international organisation that supports the rollout of vaccines to low-income countries, announced it had been offered a significant price reduction for rotavirus vaccines by a pharmaceutical company that will lower the cost to $2.50 a dose, a third of the previous low price.

GAVI already supports the introduction of life-saving vaccines in Kenya, and now has plans to rapidly accelerate its financial support for rotavirus vaccines.

At the same time, there are new, more affordable rotavirus vaccines on the horizon that will sustain our efforts to save children for the long-term.

Manufacturers in countries like India are developing vaccines for rotavirus and other diseases that should be just as safe and effective — and even more affordable — than those that exist today.

In fact, when GAVI announced the price cut for the vaccine, it disclosed that an Indian vaccine candidate — which should be available around 2015 — will cost just $1 per dose.

This is great news for Kenya and East Africa. It is estimated that broad access to rotavirus vaccines in poor countries could save up to 225,000 children annually.

Kenya played a critical role in clinical trials showing the importance of rotavirus vaccines.

This January, Kenya also led the way among its neighbours in introducing new pneumonia vaccines that are saving children’s lives right now. It is time our country showed this leadership again.

We urge government leaders to work with GAVI and immediately prioritise access to rotavirus vaccines for every child. The longer we wait, the more lives are lost.

Dr Were is the national chairman, Kenya Paediatric Association, and head of the East African Paediatric Association.