A dose in time

A new rotavirus vaccine developed in India may save tens of thousands of infant lives

Written by The Indian Express | Published: May 16, 2013 3:38:02 am

A new rotavirus vaccine developed in India may save tens of thousands of infant lives

Rotavac,a new rotavirus vaccine that has been entirely developed and tested in India,promises to save the lives of babies and toddlers around the world. While HIV and malaria get attention and resources,the most persistent dangers to young children,pneumonia and diarrhoea,are entirely preventable. Together,these serial killers are responsible for 29 per cent of the deaths of children under five. Rotavirus gastroenteritis,which causes the diarrhoea,can easily be combated by vaccination. It has been estimated that 4,50,000 lives could be saved in a year with the rotavirus vaccine,most of them in poorer parts of the world. According to the WHO,between 90,000 and 1,53,000 children in India alone die from rotavirus infection.

Of course,other rotavirus vaccines have existed for many years now. But Rotavac could potentially upend the market,with its dramatically low cost of around Rs 50,a dollar a pop. Pharmaceutical companies GlaxoSmithKline and Merck have their own versions,Rotarix and RotaTeq,which cost between Rs 1,200 to Rs 2,400,and though they have been persuaded to discount the vaccines for low-income countries,Rotavac could make access that much easier. Rigorous clinical trials in India,conducted on 6,799 babies,have shown that it reduced severe diarrhoea due to rotavirus by 56 per cent in the first year of life. This is less effective than the others,but it remains to be seen how it can compete in conditions of better sanitation and hygiene awareness. It could have a larger positive ripple effect for public health — when a significant part of the population is vaccinated,chains of infection are broken,protecting unvaccinated children as well.

This vaccine is a tremendous achievement for the PPP model in public health,for the Indian scientific and public health community and their global partners. It has taken 28 years of patient work,after a non-pathogenic strain of the virus was discovered at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences,pushed along by the Indo-US Vaccine Action Program. This vaccine,produced from scratch,was the result of collaboration between public and private agencies across the world,including the Indian government,the National Institute of Immunology,the Gates Foundation,Indian company Bharat Biotech,the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention,and others. This kind of concerted global action,across public and private institutions,is necessary to frontally fight and subdue killers like diarrhoea,and other public health emergencies.

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