GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Health Organization recommended on Friday that oral rotavirus vaccines be included in all national immunization programs to avert half a million diarrhoeal deaths and 2 million hospitalizations a year.
Children in Europe and the Americas have had access to the rotavirus vaccine for three years but it had previously not been tested in and approved for low-income settings where the dehydrating disease is most lethal.
The U.N. agency’s new global guidance is expected to boost demand for Merck’s RotaTeq, GlaxoSmithKline’s Rotarix vaccines in Africa and Asia, and from health charities.
“This WHO recommendation clears the way for vaccines that will protect children in the developing world from one of the most deadly diseases they face,” said Tachi Yamada of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Rotavirus is a leading cause of severe gastroenteritis, including vomiting and diarrhea, in infants and young children. The contagious infection kills an estimated 1,600 children under the age of 5 every day, mostly in Africa and Asia.
The first vaccine developed to fight rotavirus, sold by Wyeth, was pulled from the market in 1999 after it was linked to a rare, life-threatening type of bowel obstruction known as intussusception.
The Merck and Glaxo vaccines do not have that problem.
The WHO said clinical trials in poor communities in South Africa and Malawi showed the new oral vaccines significantly reduced severe diarrhea episodes related to rotavirus.
Trials are continuing in Bangladesh, Vietnam, Ghana, Mali and Kenya, but the guidance was issued ahead of those full results “since available evidence indicates that efficacy data can be extrapolated to populations with similar mortality patterns regardless of geographic location,” the WHO said.
Developing countries wanting help to distribute the rotavirus vaccine can seek assistance from the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a Geneva-based international procurer and WHO partner.
GAVI, the WHO and the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF are now working to develop “a new accelerated and integrated approach” to tackle rotavirus diarrhea and pneumonia together.
Those two vaccine-preventable diseases account for more than 35 percent of the world’s child deaths each year, the vast majority in poor countries, the WHO said.
It also stressed that “there are many causes of diarrhoeal disease,” meaning that efforts to improve water quality, sanitation standards and access to rehydration salts must continue despite the expansion of the vaccine.
Editing by Stephanie Nebehay
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