Tuesday, November 20, 2018
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A Simple Live Saving Solution 

By Dr. Samba Ousmane Sow

Everyday, across Cameroon, children die needlessly from a little-known disease with a devastating impact. It is called rotavirus and it is the leading cause of severe diarrhea and one of the most easily preventable public health challenges we face today.

Dr Ousmane, working hard for the African Child

Rotavirus kills more than 500 000 children under five, around the world each year – almost 1 400 deaths each day – the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It leads to millions more hospitalisations. In Cameroon alone, rotavirus is responsible for more than 4 500 deaths. Rotavirus attacks our families and threatens our nation’s future by targeting our most precious resource – our children.

But the true tragedy is that, much of this death and suffering could be prevented right now, if children in Cameroon had the same access to life-saving vaccines as children in industrialised countries, where the disease barely has an impact. In the United States, rotavirus vaccines have been widely available for five years, even though the disease only killed a handful of children a year, when they were introduced. Here, where the need is much greater, they are not an option for the vast majority of children.

Vaccines are one of the best long-term investments to prevent disease and give children a healthy start to life – a few shots or drops can protect a child for a lifetime. And they are one of the most cost-effective interventions to prevent illness in a country like ours with many competing health priorities. With rotavirus, existing oral vaccines have been shown to provide significant protection against the disease.

The challenge has been that until today, rotavirus vaccines have been much too expensive for poor countries, where health resources are scarce. And donors have been hesitant to support the vaccine until costs come down. But in the past week, there is new cause for optimism.  Children in developing countries will finally get access to the same life-saving rotavirus vaccines that children living in rich countries do.

On June 6, the GAVI Alliance, an international organization that supports the rollout of vaccines to low-income countries, announced that it had been offered a significant price reduction for rotavirus vaccines from a pharmaceutical company that will lower the cost to US$2.50 a dose, a third of the previous low price.

GAVI already supports introduction of life-saving vaccines in Cameroon and now has plans to rapidly accelerate its financial support for rotavirus vaccines. At the same time, there are new, more affordable rotavirus vaccines on the horizon that will sustain our efforts to save children’s lives for the long-term.

Manufacturers in developing countries, such as India, are developing vaccines for rotavirus and other diseases that should be just as safe and effective – and even more affordable — than those that exist today. In fact, when GAVI announced the price cut for the existing rotavirus vaccine, it disclosed that an Indian rotavirus vaccine candidate – which should be available around 2015 – will cost just US$1 per dose.

This is great news for Cameroon and anyone in West Africa, where rotavirus is an all-too-commonly accepted part of life. It is estimated that broad access to rotavirus vaccines in low-income countries could save up to 225 000 children annually. In fact, the World Health Organisation strongly recommends this, including the rotavirus vaccine in all immunisation programs because of its potential life-saving impact.

But even the most effective vaccines will only have an impact if they are made available to people who need them. We call on our Government to work with GAVI and immediately prioritise rapid access to rotavirus vaccines for every child across the country. The longer we wait, the more lives are lost-lives of our future leaders.

We also call upon the vaccine industry to continue making vaccines more accessible. Reducing prices of available vaccines and creating opportunities for better, cheaper vaccines will ensure that funds given to GAVI can save even more lives. Governments, donors, and manufacturers, all have a critical role to play in this effort.

Finally, I hope the international community will continue to recognise the value of vaccines and that their contributions are essential to support the rollout of these proven life-saving tools. Today it is rotavirus, but tomorrow it may be new vaccines for human influenza, malaria, typhoid or dengue fever.

Vaccines alone will not rid the world of rotavirus or solve all of our persistent health problems. We still need to focus on long-term challenges such as improving sanitation and strengthening health systems. Yet, ensuring access to rotavirus vaccines is a simple commitment that can save thousands of lives, starting today.

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