At the end of African Vaccination Week last week, top health officials in Sudan held a press conference in which they announced their intention to introduce, on a nationwide scale, a vaccine against rotavirus—the most deadly cause of severe and fatal diarrhea.
While this news story did not garner international headlines, it should have. The vaccine announcement heralds a lifeline that will hopefully soon extend to children across the African continent.
In 2003, I joined a small but spirited community of scientists, researchers, and public health advocates committed to preventing the death of children due to rotavirus. This obscurely known cause of diarrheal disease primarily affects children under two years of age. In the worst cases, it causes watery diarrhea, vomiting, fever, abdominal pain, and dehydration severe enough to kill a small child.
From our work, we now know unequivocally that rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in children in every region of the world. Worldwide, more children die from it than from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined. For years, our “rotavirus community” was driven by a singular vision: to bring a vaccine to the poorest children of the world to prevent these deaths.
The result is that new vaccines against rotavirus have been developed that can indeed prevent the most severe rotavirus episodes. Most important, in those countries where rotavirus vaccines have been introduced, fewer children are dying each year from diarrheal disease. In the Latin American countries of Bolivia, Guyana, Honduras, and Nicaragua the reduction in severe rotavirus disease and diarrheal deaths is profound.
But the dream of making vaccines available to children across the African continent has remained elusive.
The numbers are staggering: a quarter of a million African children die from rotavirus disease each year. Six of the seven countries with the highest infant mortality rates from rotavirus are in Africa: Angola, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Somalia. In Sudan as well, diarrhea and dehydration are a leading cause of death in young children. Yet, with the exception of South Africa, no African country has introduced these vaccines, primarily because they cannot afford to do so on their own.
The upcoming nationwide introduction of the rotavirus vaccine in Sudan is thanks to financing from the GAVI Alliance—a partnership of global donors, developing countries, vaccine manufacturers, and civil-society organizations that has successfully provided the funding needed to deliver many lifesaving vaccines to children living in the world’s poorest communities. The commitment by the GAVI Alliance to fund the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in Africa will reverse a tragic story by preventing hundreds of thousands of unnecessary child deaths across the African continent.
With one unheralded announcement from Sudan, our small, spirited, and now I readily add, persistent rotavirus community is on the threshold of seeing our vision become a reality.