October 14, 2009 / 4:10 PM / in 8 years

Vaccines, hygiene could stop diarrhea deaths: U.N

LONDON (Reuters) - Diarrhea causes one in five child deaths across the world but getting important vaccines to Africa and Asia could help save many lives, two U.N. agencies said on Wednesday.

Some 1.5 million children die each year from diarrhea, -- more than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined -- yet only 39 percent of children with diarrhea in developing countries get the right treatment, the World Health Organization and the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF said in a report.

Vaccinations against rotavirus, the leading cause of severe gastroenteritis with vomiting and diarrhea in babies and children, as well as better sanitation and proper rehydration treatment would help solve the problem, they said.

Rotavirus causes around 40 percent of hospital admissions from diarrhea in children under five worldwide, according to the report, and vaccination against it has recently been recommended for all national immunization programs.

Only a few, mostly developed and richer nations include rotavirus vaccine in routine childhood immunization programs, but the WHO has been working to make two vaccines -- Rotateq from Merck & Co and Rotarix from GlaxoSmithKline -- more widely available in developing countries.

“Accelerating its introduction in Africa and Asia, where the rotavirus burden is greatest, needs to become an international priority,” said the report.

It also said two mainstays of diarrhea treatment -- zinc supplements and low-osmolarity oral rehydration salts -- are still hard to come by in many poorer countries.

“We know what works to reduce child deaths from diarrhea and what actions will make a lasting reduction in the burden of diarrhea,” Tessa Wardlaw of UNICEF and Elizabeth Mason of the WHO said in a commentary in The Lancet medical journal.

“We need to make the prevention and treatment of diarrhea everybody’s business, from families and communities to government leaders to the global community.”

More than 80 percent of child deaths due to diarrhea occur in Africa and South Asia and just 15 countries account for almost three quarters of all deaths from diarrhea among children under five each year. India has the highest number of annual deaths at 386,600.

The report set an action plan to try prevent more childhood deaths from diarrhea. It stressed that simple steps like encouraging hand washing, promoting breastfeeding for small babies, and discouraging open defecation were crucial.

“Nearly one in four people in developing countries practice open defecation,” the authors said. “And despite some recent progress, only 37 percent of infants in developing countries are exclusively breastfed for the first six months.”

An estimated 88 per cent of diarrheal deaths worldwide are due to unsafe water and poor sanitation or hygiene, they added.

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