It's a sobering statistic: rotavirus was the cause of 215,000 child deaths globally in 2013. Even more sobering is the fact that over half of these deaths occurred in Africa, a region with already-high levels of infant and child mortality.
But there's hope.
A recent study out of the UK has found that vaccinating against rotavirus reduced infant diarrhea deaths by 34 per cent in rural Malawi, a low-income region located in sub-Saharan Africa. Malawi introduced a rotavirus vaccine back in 2012.
Rotavirus is an extremely contagious virus that causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, resulting in diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain. Infants and children are the most likely to contract rotavirus and are also the most at risk if they do. Young children and babies can easily become severely dehydrated and often require hospitalization. Sometimes, the virus can be fatal - especially for children living in developing countries.
The results of the UK study support the World Health Organization's (WHO) recommendation that the rotavirus vaccine should be included in all national immunization programs. Currently, rotavirus is a leading cause of severe diarrhea and death among infants and young children in many African and Asian countries, and Professor Nigel Cunliffe - one of the study leads - said their findings "strongly advocate" for the incorporation of rotavirus vaccine into childhood immunization programs around the world.
The study took four years to complete and involved a team of over 1,100 researchers and investigators to determine the rotavirus vaccine's impact on infant diarrhea deaths. They studied 48,672 infants in 1,832 villages in Malawi, collecting data which included the infants' vaccination status and whether or not they survived to age one.
The results were encouraging to experts who were already aware that rotavirus vaccine reduces hospital admissions and is highly cost-effective in countries with a high incidence of diarrheal disease. Now, however, it has also been shown to saves lives.
"Children from the sub-Saharan African region account for more than half of global diarrhea deaths," said Dr. Carina King, one of the report's lead authors. "The absolute impact on mortality is likely to be substantial." According to King, over 30 African countries have introduced the rotavirus vaccine to date.
Unfortunately, according to Dr. Naor Bar-Zeev, Associate Professor of International Health at the International Vaccine Access Center of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, not all countries are vaccinating against rotavirus just yet - and some of these include countries with very dense populations.
"The key message of this paper is that to do the best by all our children and to help them survive, all countries should introduce rotavirus vaccination," he said.