Rotavirus Vaccines Help Decrease Child Hospitalizations

January 24, 2011

New data indicate that rotavirus vaccines improve the health and well-being of children by significantly reducing severe and fatal diarrhea.

New findings published in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal indicate that there has been a “dramatic and swift decline” in the number of children hospitalized due to rotavirus in countries that include rotavirus vaccines as part of their routine immunization programs.

Diarrhea is one of the top two killers of children under five years of age worldwide, and rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrheal disease in children. Each year, rotavirus-related diarrheal disease takes the lives of more than 500,000 children under five years of age and is responsible for the hospitalization of millions more.

“These studies add to the growing body of evidence that shows rotavirus vaccines are safe, effective, and most importantly, saving children’s lives,” said Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a press release.

In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that all countries include rotavirus vaccines in their national immunization programs. Rotavirus vaccination is a critical part of a coordinated approach to address severe and fatal diarrhea. Prevention and treatment of diarrhea also includes oral rehydration therapy, exclusive breastfeeding, zinc treatment, and improved hygiene and sanitation. While most children in the world will contract rotavirus by their third birthdays, children in developing countries more often die from the terrible diarrhea caused by rotavirus because treatment for severe infections is often limited or inaccessible.

“Rotavirus vaccines have enormous potential to save lives, and it is tragic that they are not more widely available to the children who need them most,” said Helen Evans, interim chief executive officer of the GAVI Alliance. “We urgently need to get these life-saving vaccines to children in developing countries.”

Some of the key findings from the studies are as follows:

  • In the US, there was a significant 58-86% reduction in rotavirus-related hospitalizations over three years following vaccine introduction in July 2006.
  • In Australia, which introduced rotavirus vaccine in July 2007, there was a striking 89-94% reduction in rotavirus-related hospitalizations in children under five years of age living in Queensland in the two years following vaccine introduction.
  • In El Salvador, rotavirus hospitalization rates for children under five years of age declined dramatically by 69-81% in two and a half years following the introduction of rotavirus vaccine in October 2006.
  • In Mexico, which introduced rotavirus vaccine in May 2007, there was a 40% decline in 2009 in diarrhea-related hospitalizations in children under five years of age during the rotavirus season.

“PAHO’s [Pan American Health Organization] decision to prioritize investment in rotavirus vaccines is paying off for our children,” said PAHO deputy director Jon K. Andrus, MD. “The evidence is clear—immunization against rotavirus is one of the best ways to protect millions of children from severe, and often fatal, diarrhea.”

The studies also show that there have been large reductions in rotavirus disease among older, unvaccinated children, suggesting that vaccination may limit the overall amount of virus transmission, thereby indirectly protecting the larger population. This phenomenon, known as “herd immunity,” will require continued study.

“Wherever we look, in both the developed and developing worlds, we see a rapid and impressive reduction in rotavirus infections following the roll-out of vaccine,” said John Wecker, MD, director of the Vaccine Access and Delivery Global Program, PATH. “Vaccine effectiveness often takes years to document; with rotavirus, there is an immediate dramatic impact—one which should compel decision-makers and donors to support and implement the WHO recommendation to introduce rotavirus vaccines today.”

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