By Rose Weeks
This article was originally published on Next Billion and is cross-posted here with permission.
FOUR REASONS TO STEP UP PROGRESS ON REDUCING DIARRHEAL DISEASE
When my 6-week-old son got his first rotavirus vaccine dose last year, my husband and I were up what seemed like all night as he fussed and spat up. But even in my sleep-deprived state, I felt relieved to know that he would be protected from this life-threatening diarrheal disease.
Before the rotavirus vaccine was introduced in 2006, hundreds of children died from diarrheal disease in the United States. It was a devastating and preventable loss of life, but a tiny fraction of the 600,000 children estimated to die globally from diarrheal disease annually.
The just-published Pneumonia & Diarrhea Progress Report states that countries with the largest number of deaths from these diseases have not yet fully scaled up the use of available solutions to prevent and treat diarrhea, like rotavirus vaccine, oral rehydration solution (ORS) and breastfeeding.
Diarrhea still kills 1,000 per day: “It’s better, but it’s still horrific,” said Dr. Richard Guerrant, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Global Health, at last month’s annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, a convening of thousands of public health scientists.
Beyond the death toll, incidence has barely waned at all. Children in low- and middle-income countries continue to experience about three episodes of diarrhea each year. Repeated cases of severe diarrhea, especially during important development stages in a child’s life, can have a lasting impact on physical and cognitive growth. Diarrhea can also make children more susceptible to death from other causes like pneumonia.
THE UNFINISHED AGENDA
ORS only reaches 1 of 3 children in need.
Children sick with severe diarrhea can be fully rehydrated with ORS – an inexpensive mixture of sugar, salt and safe water – within a few hours. ORS has saved an estimated 50 million lives worldwide. However, only one-third of children in low- and middle-income countries who need ORS get it.
Dr. Christopher Duggan, a professor in the Harvard School of Public Health who has studied ORS since the 1980s, spoke at the TropMed annual meeting about how social marketing is a critical tool to expand access. In Bangladesh, Social Marketing Company, an offshoot of PSI, has invested millions in marketing the use of ORS. Today, Bangladesh’s coverage for ORS is 77 percent, the best of the high-burden countries. Bangladesh also packages zinc supplements – another proven way to reduce the duration and severity of diarrheal episodes – with ORS. As a result, the country has attained higher coverage of zinc use than any other country surveyed.
Even when not fatal, diarrheal infections stunt children’s growth and cognitive development.
Malnutrition weakens immune systems, making children more vulnerable to infections like diarrhea. Diarrhea, in turn, prevents children from absorbing nutrients, contributing to malnutrition. This creates a viscous cycle. Children with a typical number of diarrhea cases per year suffer an average of 8-centimeter growth loss and a 10-point IQ loss, said Guerrant.
Making the situation worse, many caregivers withhold food from children and babies when they are suffering from diarrhea. It is very important to continue feeding children appropriate food during an episode of diarrhea, said Duggan.
Innovative market-based approaches to improving nutrition include mobile clinics, training community health workers and door-to-door sales of Sprinkles (sachets containing micronutrients). Some m-health programs like Totohealth in Kenya use SMS to monitor child development.
Vaccines against rotavirus, which causes 2 in 5 diarrheal deaths, are not reaching more than 90 million children or 70 percent of all infants worldwide. And not all children in the U.S. are vaccinated.
Rotavirus causes 40 percent of diarrhea hospitalizations and 200,000 deaths in children younger than 5 each year. Unlike other forms of diarrhea, rotavirus infections cannot be controlled by hygiene and sanitation alone.
Two rotavirus vaccines have been internationally licensed since 2006 and are used routinely in nearly 80 countries. Despite this, only 15 percent of the children in countries eligible for vaccine support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – the world’s poorest – have access to rotavirus vaccines.
Dr. Umesh Parashar, who leads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Enteric Viruses Epidemiology Team, said that the use of rotavirus vaccines in the U.S. has led to a striking decline in rotavirus-related hospitalizations. In some years, there are few cases observed. Yet, because coverage is still not routinely high, varying geographically from 59-88 percent, the accumulation of unvaccinated infants periodically leads to outbreaks.
Public health impact has been dramatic in low- and middle-income countries where rotavirus vaccines have been introduced. In Mexico, the vaccine led to a 50 percent decrease in diarrheal deaths in children younger than 5.
New rotavirus vaccines are being developed in emerging economies to expand supply and lower price, but may need more help to be available for other countries.
Dr. Duncan Steele of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – now making headline-worthy investments in accelerating the introduction of rotavirus vaccine in low- and middle-income countries – discussed one bright spot on the horizon.
Companies in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam are developing new vaccines with prices as low as U.S. $1 per dose for governments (such as Bharat Biotech’s ROTAVAC, which India is soon rolling out in four states). But there are not yet enough doses of these new vaccines to cover all children in the countries where they are being produced, much less the millions of children around the world who are in need of this vaccine.
THE TIME TO ACT IS NOW
“The main message is – we are not winning this fight,” Steele summarized, pointing to the need for greater advocacy to mobilize support for proven, low-cost diarrheal disease solutions such as ORS, zinc and dysentery treatment.
“The time to act is now,” urged Mathu Santosham, chair for the Rotavirus Organization of Technical Allies Council.
Fourteen of the 15 countries with the most deaths due to pneumonia and diarrhea are currently eligible for new vaccine support from Gavi, but five won’t be eligible for long and some have only months to seek funding for rotavirus vaccines. Most poor countries have yet to approach global targets for ORS and zinc use.
Regardless of their birthplace, all children should be protected from suffering, stunting and the risk of death from diarrheal disease.
Rose Weeks is the director of communications for the Center for American Indian Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and secunded to the International Vaccine Access Center to support the ROTA Council project.
By Dr. Mathuram Santosham, Chair for the Rotavirus Organization of Technical Allies (ROTA) Council, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, and Senior Advisor for the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins University, where he is also a Professor of International Health and Pediatrics.
This article was originally published on Impatient Optimists and is cross-posted here with permission.
In 1980, the first summer I worked on the White Mountain Apache reservation, a community of fewer than 10,000 people in Arizona, so many babies were dying of diarrhea that we buried one every week.
To combat this major problem, we trained community outreach workers to give oral rehydration solution (ORS)—a mixture of sugar, salt and safe water—to babies and young children sick with severe, dehydrating diarrhea. Over time the practice spread and diarrhea deaths in the community dropped to nearly zero.
Proven solutions like ORS, vaccines and better sanitation and hygiene have dramatically reduced childhood diarrhea deaths around the world—from 5 million deaths in 1980 to 600,000 today.
But it’s not just deaths we have to worry about. Illnesses are a major issue too. As the rate of diarrhea deaths have dramatically come down, incidence has barely decreased at all. Children continue to experience an average of three episodes of diarrhea each year. A case of severe diarrhea, especially during important development stages in a child’s life, can have a lasting impact on physical and cognitive growth. Diarrhea can also make children more susceptible to death from other causes like pneumonia.
Recently, at TropMed in Philadelphia, recent progress in global efforts to protect children from diarrhea was hailed and the unfinished agenda highlighted.
Here are four critical things we need to do to protect children from diarrhea:
1. Expand access to ORS.
Children sick with severe diarrhea can be fully rehydrated within a few hours when provided with ORS. However, only one-third of children in low- and middle-income countries who need ORS get it.
2. Improve nutrition and be sure to feed children suffering from diarrhea to stop the vicious cycle of malnutrition and diarrhea.
Malnutrition weakens immune systems, making children more vulnerable to infections like diarrhea. Diarrhea, in turn, prevents children from absorbing nutrients, contributing to malnutrition. This creates a vicious cycle. Because of malnutrition, one in five children worldwide is moderately to severely stunted. Children with two to three diarrheal disease infections a year suffer an average of 8 cm growth loss and a 10 IQ point loss.
Making the situation worse, many caregivers withhold food from children and babies when they are suffering from diarrhea. It is very important to continue feeding children appropriate food during an episode of diarrhea.
3. Vaccinate all children against rotavirus, the leading cause of severe and deadly diarrhea.
Rotavirus causes 40% of diarrhea hospitalizations—and 200,000 deaths in children under 5 each year. Unlike other forms of diarrhea, rotavirus infections cannot be controlled by hygiene and sanitation alone. Vaccines are essential to prevention.
Two rotavirus vaccines are available and have been internationally licensed since 2006. These vaccines are currently used in the national immunization programs of nearly 80 countries. Despite this, only 15 % of the children in Gavi countries—the world’s poorest—have access to this life saving vaccine. Even in countries where rotavirus vaccines are used, the poorest children often do not get vaccinated.
In the US, use of rotavirus vaccines led to a striking decline in rotavirus-related hospitalizations. In some years, there are almost no cases observed. Yet because coverage is still not routinely high (it’s varies geographically from 59-88% now), the accumulation of unvaccinated infants periodically leads to outbreaks. In the US, rotavirus vaccine coverage must be improved.
Worldwide, more than 90 million children still don’t have access to rotavirus vaccines. In countries where the most diarrhea deaths occur, almost none have introduced the rotavirus vaccine, despite considerable evidence of its public health impact, cost saving potential and the prospect of introduction support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
Public health impact has been dramatic in low- and middle-income countries where rotavirus vaccines have been introduced. In Mexico, the vaccine led to a decrease by 50% in diarrheal deaths in children under 5.
Countries that do not already include the rotavirus vaccine in their national immunization program should consider the striking public health and economic benefits and take steps to introduce it as soon as possible. Countries that do, should work to ensure good coverage.
4. Develop new, low-cost rotavirus vaccines to help reach all children.
New rotavirus vaccines are in the pipeline and could help to accelerate coverage. Companies in China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam are developing new vaccines with prices as low as US$1.00 per dose for governments (such as Bharat Biotech’s ROTAVAC, which India is rolling out soon in four states). There are not yet enough doses of these new vaccines to cover all children in the countries where they are being produced, much less the millions of children around the world who are in need of this vaccine. Yet with new product licensures expected as soon as 2017, the product landscape could be quite different very soon.
One thousand children per day still die from diarrhea—a preventable tragedy. We’ve made progress, but we can do much better.
As Nobel Laurate Gabriela Mistral said:
"We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow,’ his name is today.”
The Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhea goal is to reduce mortality from diarrhea in children under 5 to fewer than 1 per 1,000 live births. This is a very ambitious goal but we know it is possible as long as the public health community can work together and garner political support. We need to make it happen.
To learn more about how you can get involved, visit this page.
This article was originally published on Global Health Now and is cross-posted here with permission.
By: Dr. Mathuram Santosham
A healthy child in Uttar Pradesh, India, 2010 © Gates Foundation
World Immunization Week provides a moment to reflect on the tremendous progress in reducing one of the world’s leading killers of children—diarrhea.
While oral rehydration solution has significantly reduced diarrheal disease mortality since its adoption in 1978, diarrhea continues to be a major cause of childhood illness and death globally. Rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhea, is responsible for approximately 40% of all diarrhea hospitalizations and hundreds of thousands of deaths in children under 5.
Rotavirus vaccines offer the best protection for children and are an essential part of comprehensive diarrhea control. While the WHO recommends that all countries introduce rotavirus vaccines, only 77 have done so, 34 of which are Gavi-eligible countries where many of the deaths occur. Unfortunately, some of the most vulnerable children and communities do not have access to the vaccine.
In particular, Asia has lagged in introducing rotavirus vaccines, even though it accounts for more than 40% of global rotavirus deaths. To date, no country in the region has introduced the vaccine into its national immunization program.
While dramatic reductions in deaths from childhood diarrheal disease have been achieved in Bangladesh, there are still more than 2.4 million rotavirus cases each year. It causes 2 out of every 3 diarrhea-related hospitalizations among children under 5. There are also serious economic consequences. One episode of rotavirus costs the average Bangladeshi family about USD $80 in direct hospital costs, a significant portion of average monthly income.
In neighboring India, where rotavirus is equally ubiquitous, the disease poses a significant financial burden to families and the country’s economy. Studies have shown that a hospitalization for rotavirus could potentially push a family into poverty or keep them there. Depending on the level of care, the total cost of a rotavirus hospitalization could range anywhere from nearly $32 to more than $135, equal to up to 2 months of income for an average Indian family. Rotavirus also burdens the healthcare system with the high cost of hospitalizations and outpatient visits. One study estimated that hospitalizations and outpatient visits cost India approximately $78 million and $86 million each year, respectively—each more than the estimated $72 million it would cost to fund a rotavirus immunization program.
For fast-growing countries like India and Bangladesh, tackling rotavirus—which cheats children and the nation of productivity, well-being and development—should be a priority. However, the available and effective rotavirus vaccines are not yet available in the national immunization programs of either country.
Many of my scientific colleagues in Bangladesh are making a good case to their leaders for national introduction of rotavirus vaccines. And, I’m inspired by the strides being made in India. Last July, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that rotavirus will be included in the Universal Immunization Programme; and just last month, the first India-made rotavirus vaccine, ROTAVAC, was launched. Now is the time to get to the finish line—the cost of delaying access to rotavirus vaccines continues to mount. Together we can close this immunization gap and virtually eliminate rotavirus.
Dr. Mathuram Santosham is the Director of the Center for American Indian Health, Chair of the ROTA Council, and Senior Advisor at the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Santosham and his colleagues won an Honorable Mention in GHN's Untold Global Health Stories Contest for their submission of rotavirus in Bangladesh and India. GHN will feature one Honorable Mention story per month from now until the next contest in early 2016.
By Dr. Samba Sow
Dr. Samba Sow is Director General of the Center for Vaccine Development – Mali (CVD Mali) and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. This blog is cross-posted from Lancet Global Health.
Scientific research, by definition, is about process. Scientists must follow carefully developed guidelines and established protocols to make sure research is conducted validly, accurately, and ethically. As any field researcher knows, meticulous attention to detail is challenging at the best of times, when obstacles like staff turnover, equipment shortages or delays, power outages, strikes, security concerns, and disruptive rumours are not out of the ordinary. But these “everyday” logistical challenges of doing research are further compounded when political instability surrounds your research site.
In the past year, my colleagues and I at Center for Vaccine Development (CVD) Mali faced immeasurable challenges in keeping research efforts going when the insurgency that has afflicted our country for decades began moving southward and threatening the capital city of Bamako, where our research centre is located. Read the full blog at the Lancet Global Health.
By Dr. Kate O’Brien
This week scientists came together to declare that we will eradicate polio in 5 years. It’s an achievable goal, and admittedly an aspirational one. But, if we as a global community leverage proven strategies and follow through on commitments made, it will be met. It is amazing to think that this goal, which just two decades ago seemed impossible to many, is now firmly in our sights. It also gives me confidence that we can reach other goals, such as reducing preventable childhood deaths to a degree that any such death is seen as a shocking, rare event rather than predictable and intractable. This challenge, which the global health community laid out in last year’s Promise Renewed initiative may seem daunting, given that despite recent declines, 6.9 million children died in 2011. However, when you consider that worldwide polio cases have dropped by 99% since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988, it is clear these problems are surmountable. Like polio eradication, we need a concrete approach to tackling the leading child killers, and we made a big step forward with today’s launch of the Integrated Global Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD). Released by WHO and UNICEF, GAPPD clearly outlines the steps we must take to eliminate the two leading killers of young children in 20 years.
The Integrated Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD)
Most of my professional life has been spent assessing and applying interventions to reduce pneumonia and diarrhea, both in the United States among American Indian communities and around the world in the communities where most child deaths still occur. I’ve seen the burden of these diseases in the numbers we calculate and on the faces of the patients I’ve treated. I’ve also seen that we have the tools we need to stop children from dying or suffering from severe pneumonia and diarrhea. When I worked in Haiti, the ward was full of children, over a third of whom would die in those beds. Nearly all of the illnesses these children had were fully preventable, mostly through the use of vaccines but also through other simple, sensible interventions. The interventions we have work, and the task we have is to figure out how to use them most effectively, to know if what we are doing is working, and to make adjustments in optimizing their impact. This feedback loop can only be put in place when we can measure the impact of what we’re doing. We may not be able to measure with absolute precision, but with enough precision to know if our time and treasure is being wisely spent.
We know what we need to do to tackle pneumonia and diarrhea, and establishing clear evidence on the burden of disease and on interventions that work creates the platform from which we can prioritize our efforts. A new series published in the Lancet today in conjunction with GAPPD provides updated evidence on this front. One of the papers, led by faculty in our Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins provides updated mortality estimates for pneumonia and diarrhea – together responsible for more than 2 million child deaths in 2011.
We also have a clear understanding of which interventions work, and we know that many of them overlap. As my colleague Bob Black pointed out in the Lancet series launch, while diarrhea and pneumonia have very different symptoms and causes, several risk factors for the two diseases are the same, including under-nutrition, suboptimal breastfeeding, and zinc deficiency, meaning that they can be effectively prevented and treated as part of a coordinated program. We also know that vaccination campaigns will play an important role. A second paper in the Lancet evaluated 15 key interventions using the Lives Saved Tool. It found that nearly one third of severe diarrhea episodes could be prevented by widespread vaccination against rotavirus and cholera, while up to two thirds of pneumonia deaths could be prevented by implementation of pneumococcal and Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccines. With ambitious scale-up – 80% coverage or more – the authors estimated all 15 interventions could effectively eliminate (95% prevented) diarrheal deaths and prevent around two-thirds of pneumonia deaths by 2025. All this at a total cost of just USD6.7 billion.
GAPPD and the Lancet series reflect years of work toward a consensus among all stakeholders that we must target our efforts on proven interventions, and we must work together in an integrated way. Many of the interventions for childhood diseases overlap, and can be delivered more efficiently if all parties work together. This integration will not only result in better care for each child, it is also crucial in resource-poor settings, where countries simply cannot afford to maintain siloed efforts and where partnering countries and organizations are increasingly demanding more impact for their investments.
We have the evidence, and our marching orders are clear. With polio eradication beckoning our efforts, it is the time to leverage this energy, know-how, and confidence by fulfilling our promises and advocating for all stakeholders – donors, governments, civil society, and other leaders – to fulfill theirs. We can all take inspiration and insight from polio eradication efforts and make the end of preventable pneumonia and diarrhea deaths a reality.
Kate O’Brien, MD, MPH is Acting Executive Director of IVAC. A pediatric infectious disease physician, epidemiologist, and vaccinologist, she previously served as Deputy Director of IVAC. She also serves as Associate Director of the Center for American Indian Health.