WHO: All children should get rotavirus shot

June 9, 2009

In a move aiming to save over half a million children's lives, the WHO endorsed global rotavirus immunizations for every child in every country.

In a move aiming to save half a million children’s lives, the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed global rotavirus immunizations for every child in every country.

Rotavirus is a common worldwide disease, causing a few days of diarrhea and vomiting, and possibly fever and abdominal pain. In extreme cases it can dehydrate a body, or leave it vulnerable for another disease to strike. But in developing countries it can be fatal: over 600,000 children die of the disease yearly, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before the vaccine, almost every child caught a case of rotavirus at least once: it’s one of the leading causes of infant mortality worldwide. Recent studies in Malawi and South Africa showed that even in very health-compromised areas, the rotavirus vaccine stopped the disease. Results of further studies in five more developing countries will be reported in the fall.

The recommendation comes with new challenges. Only two companies currently make rotavirus vaccines, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck. Manufacturing doses for each child will take a sizable ramp-up in production. Then there’s the issue of refrigeration, since the vaccine has to stay chilled. Finally, someone has to pay for it. This may be easier: the WHO endorsement allows for donor monies to be spent on the vaccine. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation footed the bill for much of the global research.