Recently, Rwanda took a tremendous step toward reducing child deaths by adding rotavirus vaccines to its national immunisation programme. Rotavirus is the most common form of severe diarrhoea – one of the world’s leading killers of children. In Rwanda, diarrheoa accounts for an estimated 23 per cent of all childhood deaths. That’s nearly one in four children. Each year, nearly 3,500 children lose their lives to this disease.
Seven of the world's 10 fastest-growing economies are African – proving that Africa is the next frontier for investment. However, poor health indices have serious consequences, as a healthy workforce is needed for us to continue to thrive economically.
In order to ensure that we create and sustain stable and healthy nations throughout Africa, we must focus on protecting our children and the future. Vaccination provides the best protection against the infectious diseases that are the leading killers of children throughout the continent.
Within just a few hours of being infected, children get sick and spread the virus easily through contaminated hands and objects. When treatment is unavailable or comes too late, children quickly succumb to deadly dehydration caused by rotavirus. Improvements in sanitation and access to water can help children infected with most forms of diarrhoea, but rotavirus vaccines are the most powerful tools available to prevent it.
Thanks in part to the support of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership aiming to accelerate access to key vaccines in developing countries, we have started to celebrate new vaccine introductions in Africa. Sudan, South Africa, Ghana and now Rwanda have introduced the vaccine. For children in countries that still lack access to the vaccine, however, rotavirus remains a constant and deadly threat.
As the international spotlight shines on Rwanda, there is much excitement about the promise of this vaccine to save many lives. We cannot forget, however, that a great deal of work is still ahead of us. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that rotavirus vaccines be introduced into every country’s national immunisation programme. By 2015, GAVI plans to support the introduction of rotavirus vaccine in 40 countries.
Countries throughout Africa have applied to GAVI and are expected to introduce rotavirus vaccines within the next two years. By doing so, estimates indicate that more than 2.4 million child deaths can be prevented by 2030 in GAVI-eligible countries. Vaccines are saving lives and improving child health in the countries where they are in use.
Continued growth and expansion of national healthcare systems throughout Africa is critical. In order to reap the full benefits of these vaccines, countries must commit to building supply chain management mechanisms, increase efficiency in vaccine delivery, train health workers and come together to address and disseminate key information and research about rotavirus and vaccines.
This is a crucial time for all of us to come together to capitalise on this opportunity to save our children. Vaccination gives us hope for every child in Africa, and for our future as a continent. If we can protect our children, we can give them a shot at healthy and productive lives. Which African countries will be next to answer the call?
--The authors are members of the Rotavirus Organization of Technical Allies (ROTA Council), a dedicated team of technical experts focused on saving lives and improving health by promoting the use of rotavirus vaccines as part of a comprehensive approach to addressing diarrheal disease.