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New Rotavirus Vaccine Could Save Half A Million Children Annually

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A recently developed vaccine shows great promise in the prevention of rotavirus, a deadly infectious disease which causes severe gastroenteritis in children and is responsible for hundreds of daily fatalities worldwide.

Among this vaccine's major advantages are its heat-stable quality, meaning it doesn't require refrigeration, its high affordability and the fact that it specifically targets viral strains encountered in sub-Saharan Africa, the world's most rotavirus affected region.

The new vaccine, known as BRV-PV, was tested in a large trial conducted in Niger by Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontiéres - MSF) in collaboration with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The results have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

MSF officials disclosed in a press release the vaccine was particularly adapted to benefit low-income countries, aiming to provide rotavirus protection for children who are in urgent need of immunization.

Rotavirus Prevention Efforts

Rotavirus infection is the leading cause of severe diarrhea — the second largest cause of death in infants and children. This contagious disease can result in inflammation of the stomach and intestines, also causing vomiting, fever and abdominal pain.

MSF estimates more than a third of children under the age of five with rotavirus-induced diarrhea succumb to this fatal condition, which claims roughly 500,000 young lives every year.

Most causes of diarrhea can be prevented by improving sanitary conditions, such as hygiene and access to clean water, but rotavirus is a viral infection that can only be kept in check though routine vaccination.

The two other currently available rotavirus vaccines — RotaTeq and Rotarix — are administered at the starting age of two months but are costly and need to be refrigerated, which makes them virtually inaccessible in poor countries that can't rely on electricity.

The new vaccine, however, is considerably cheaper and can be inoculated as early as six weeks old. Priced at less than $2.50, the vaccine is easily affordable for communities with low resources. MSF officials state that, because the new product is heat-stable, it can be safely distributed in non-refrigeration conditions.

Almost 67 Percent Success Rate

The Niger trial was a randomized control study conducted on almost 4,000 children under the age of two, who were vaccinated in three doses, at the age of six, 10 and 14 weeks. The results showed BRV-PV was 66.7 percent effective in preventing severe gastroenteritis.

"After the successful clinical trial of this new vaccine, we hope that it can be made available as soon as possible to children in Niger and across Africa," said Sheila Isanaka, study author and assistant professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

For the moment, the new vaccine has only been licensed in India but, pending approval by the World Health Organization, it could soon be available for purchase by the United Nations and government agencies.

According to Dr. Micaela Serafini, MSF medical director, as soon as BRV-PV is prequalified by the WHO, it will be integrated in routine immunization programs "to prevent the deaths of thousands of children."

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