It was in the 1970s when amid stiff opposition from leading paediatricians in the United States, Indian-origin scientist Dr Mathuram Santosham showed through a series of trials how the landmark Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) can treat diarrhoea. After helping save more than 60 million lives, Santosham is now heading an ambitious trial to assess the burden of pneumococcal disease in the country.
In Pune for a two-day visit, Santosham, who was conferred with the prestigious Albert B Sabin gold model last year for his pioneering role in the prevention of deadly Haemophilus Influenzae Type b (Hib) diseases including paediatric bacterial meningitis and pneumonia, told The Indian Express that 1.5 million deaths could be prevented if children are vaccinated. This means that 4,000 children are dying, of which 20 per cent are from India.
“We will now be embarking on a new three-year trial across five sites in the country, including one at Pune’s Bharati Vidyapeeth medical college, to look at the burden of pneumococcal diseases,” said Dr Santosham, who is also the director of Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health.
Santosham is known internationally for his work on childhood vaccines and dissemination of paediatric prophylactics to vulnerable population worldwide. Working in partnership with Native American communities, he conducted landmark vaccine efficacy trials, including rotavirus vaccine, H influenzae type B (Hib) conjugate vaccine and pneumococcal conjugate vaccine. Native American children used to die from these diseases at rates 10 to 50 times the US average. Through his advocacy, these vaccines now save 3 to 5 million lives a year in the US and across the globe.
In addition, Santosham worked with the White Mountain Apache Tribe to pioneer the use of oral rehydration solution (ORS), now known as “Pedialyte” in the US. Based on this evidence, ORS has become the standard of care to treat diarrheal dehydration, and is credited with saving 60 million lives since 1980.
Nearly 25 per cent of the 1.4 million children below the age of five who die every year globally due to pneumonia are from India, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Pneumonia has emerged as one of the leading causes of mortality in children below five years, says Dr Sanjay Lalwani, medical director at Bharati Vidyapeeth hospital and medical college which is one of the trial sites that will be assessing the burden of the disease in the project that is being funded by the Gates foundation.
The most common cause of pneumonia is streptococcus bacteria and those suffering from some kind of flu or viral infection such as measles – with weak immunity – are more vulnerable to an aggressive attack of pneumonia. “A pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) can go a long way in protecting children from severe infection, and for this purpose we need to collect enough baseline data so that the government can decide when to introduce it,” he added.