Heading to New Delhi, India recently for the Eleventh International Rotavirus Symposium, I knew that this meeting would be different. Over the past couple of years, notable advancements against rotavirus disease have occurred, including the development of a new indigenously developed vaccine in India, an enormous mass of studies with positive safety and effectiveness results, and many introductions of vaccines into national immunization programs, giving promise that we can beat this leading killer of children.
In the very first moments of my arrival, I learned that my expectations were right.
Never before have more people gathered at this symposium. An astounding 650 experts from 56 countries — more than 16 times as many people who attended our first meeting thirty years ago — came to the conference, themed, “Building on evidence: the case for rotavirus immunization.”
The sheer number and diversity of people are true testaments to the increasing awareness of rotavirus and the essential role of vaccines in reducing the suffering this disease causes.
Pediatricians, epidemiologists, researchers, policy makers, immunization program implementers, government officials and pharmaceutical representatives presented on and heard about a number of important topics. Panels ranged from the Latin American and African experience with vaccines and post-licensure impact and safety of vaccination, to immunity and new insights in strain diversity.
In addition, we discussed the critical policy challenges remaining and advocacy efforts needed to help overcome them. Advocacy among policy-makers, championed by my dear colleague and friend, the late Dr. Ciro de Quadros, along with groundbreaking vaccine development efforts and public-private partnerships are leading to greater prioritization of rotavirus; however, more must be done.
But what also stood out was the excitement of convening this biannual event in India. The new government has made laudable commitments to tackling the burden of rotavirus, and other leading childhood diseases, that will save lives and give all Indian children a chance at being healthy and productive.
Just two months ago, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the Government of India would provide a rotavirus vaccine to all Indian children through the Universal Immunization Program. At the same time, the government has redoubled efforts to improve access to oral rehydration solution (ORS) and other key diarrhea control interventions through its Intensified Diarrhea Control Fortnight. All of these efforts are positive signs for the children of India.
At the symposium, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, India’s Union Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare, spoke about the importance of delivering vaccines to all those in need. Too many children have lost their lives, and too many families are bearing tremendous economic consequences as a result of hospitalizations due to rotavirus. In India, rotavirus is estimated to cause more than 78,000 deaths, 800,000 hospitalizations and three million outpatient visits each year.
However, even with this momentum, we must not become complacent in addressing rotavirus disease, the leading cause of severe and fatal diarrhea in children under five years of age worldwide, killing between a quarter and a half million children each year. While children everywhere are at risk of infection, the majority of deaths occur in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where children do not have good access to care.
Yet, despite the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation for all countries to introduce rotavirus vaccines in their national immunization programs, only 35 percent of countries worldwide (69) have done so. The most disappointing statistic for me is that only one country in Asia — The Philippines — has introduced the vaccine nationally.
Additionally, while vaccination is the best way to protect children from rotavirus, a comprehensive approach will best protect child health and boost immunity. Vaccination should be part of a broad strategy that includes improved water, sanitation and hygiene; good nutrition; breastfeeding; ORS; and zinc supplementation.
I am hopeful that when we meet again for the next symposium, two years from now, we’ll have even more scientific and policy progress to celebrate and build on. Thanks to all of the dedicated rotavirus experts who participated and whose work is making a lasting difference in the health and well-being of children everywhere.
Thanks also to the conveners and funders: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Christian Medical College Vellore, Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institutes of Health Fogarty International Center, PATH, ROTA Council, Sabin Vaccine Institute, Bharat Biotech, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck Pharmaceuticals, Serum Institute of India, Ltd. and WHO.
Learn more about how rotavirus vaccines can improve health and save lives at www.ROTACouncil.org.