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Asia fails to take up rotavirus vaccine

A mother and her two children in Myanmar's Ayeyarwady Delta
(Francesca Megaloudi/IRIN)

Most countries in Asia have yet to make the rotavirus vaccine part of their national immunization programme (NIP), despite a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation to do so.

“Timely vaccination with one of the two effective rotavirus vaccines [Rotarix and Rotateq] can prevent many cases of [rotavirus] illness and hospitalizations,” WHO’s Manila office said in an email to IRIN on 7 September. “WHO recommends the inclusion of rotavirus vaccine in the national immunization schedules of all countries.”

According to WHO, rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhoeal disease in young children, with more than 500,000 children under the age of five dying worldwide each year. Highly contagious, the virus causes vomiting and severe diarrhoea that can lead to dehydration and potential death. 

Children aged six months to two years are particularly vulnerable to infection. Worldwide, rotavirus accounts for 37 percent of all diarrhoea deaths in children under five with 95 percent of those deaths occurring in developing countries.  

While the virus is treatable by providing fluids and salts, health experts note that it has a devastating and deadly impact in areas where people cannot access medical care. There are no antibiotics or any other drug to fight the infection and since 2009 WHO has recommended the global use of the rotavirus vaccine.

“For rotavirus vaccine the main aim is to prevent or reduce the severity of the first one or two infections in young children,” Tony Nelson, professor of paediatrics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and member of the Rotavirus Organization of Technical Allies (ROTA council), told IRIN. “It is these first infections that are the most severe and most likely to cause life-threatening dehydration.”

The international health NGO PATH reports that in Asia 42 percent of all hospital admissions of children under five with diarrhoea are the result of rotavirus, while 188,000 children under five die each year. 

“As many of these deaths and admissions could be prevented by vaccination, it is sad that very few countries in Asia have announced plans to include rotavirus vaccines in their NIPs,” Nelson said. 

As of September 2012, 41 countries worldwide have introduced rotavirus vaccines in their NIPs. Four African countries - Botswana, Ghana, Rwanda and Sudan - have fully introduced the oral vaccine in their NIPs, while South Africa and Zambia introduced rotavirus vaccination on a regional basis.  

However, only two countries in Asia - Philippines and Thailand - are vaccinating (or are about to) children against rotavirus: “Price continues to be an important barrier to introducing rotavirus vaccine,” WHO explained. 

In July, Philippines started vaccinating an estimated 700,000 children each year aged 1.5-3.5 months from the poorest communities.

In the same month Thailand announced it will vaccinate regionally, but has yet to provide an actual launch date.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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