Doctors Say This New Vaccine Could Save Thousands of Children Who Die Each Year

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For most parents, a bout with a nasty stomach bug is just about the most dreadful thing in the world. When a virus whips through your house, it can cause sleepless nights, lost days of work, and endless, endless laundry. (Believe me, it takes years for kids to learn to puke in a toilet!) And forget about if you get hit with the virus, too: When Mom or Dad is out of commission, the whole house goes up in smoke.

Gastrointestinal bugs totally suck, but for most of us, they are rarely anything too serious. Even if a stomach virus lands a child in the hospital, that child is usually fine after some oral rehydration therapy and good old fashioned popsicles. But this is not the cases in other parts of the world, particularly in countries with limited access to clean water and medical care. In these countries, gastrointestinal viruses are deadly for children, especially the smallest, most vulnerable ones.

One of the most dangerous viruses for these children is rotavirus, a gastrointestinal bug that causes severe diarrhea and vomiting. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 215,000 children under the age of five are killed each year by rotavirus, with close to half all deaths concentrated in just four countries (India, Pakistan, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo). The New York Times estimates that 600 children die from rotavirus each day (yes, you read that right: 600 children a day). And a study from 2013 found that rotavirus is the leading cause of fatal diarrhea for children under the age of 2.

These statistics are heart-wrenching. But luckily, there appears to be some very good news on the horizon: According to The New York Times, a new rotavirus vaccine was recently tested in Nigeria by Doctors Without Borders, and the results have been quite promising so far.

The vaccine, made by Serum Institute of India, was found to be 67 percent effective in protecting children from the most severe symptoms of the virus. Of the 1,780 who participated in the trial, only 31 who received the vaccine got severely ill, compared to 87 who received a placebo. And while one would hope for a better rate of protection than 67 percent, it’s far better than the protection granted by other similar vaccines used in Africa to treat rotavirus, according to The New York Times.

“Would we want a perfect vaccine? Definitely,” Rebecca Grais, of Doctors Without Borders, told NYT. “But a vaccine that prevents two-thirds of the deaths and hospitalizations that rotavirus causes is definitely worth considering.”

But what’s even more promising about this vaccine is that it can last for months without refrigeration — up to six months at 104 degrees — due to its powdered form. This is especially important in parts of the world with little or no access to electricity. Thus far, the vaccines used in these parts of the world have required refrigeration, according to The New York Times.

The vaccine still needs to be approved by The World Health Organization before it can be distributed, but The New York Times reports that the process for approval is underway. Doctors on the ground — who work with these most vulnerable populations every day — are truly hopeful that the vaccine gets approved quickly, and can be distributed at an inexpensive price. They know firsthand how desperate these countries are to protect their children.

“This provides hope in environments where there wasn’t any,” said Rebecca Grais, “so our level of enthusiasm is very high.”

It’s hard for most of us to think about such large numbers of children suffering on a daily basis, but it’s sadly the reality. So much more needs to be done to make their lives safer from preventable diseases, but the fact that this vaccine may become available for these children in the near future provides some much needed light and hope. And it’s a sobering reminder of how lucky we are in the U.S. to have access to the quality medical care and sanitary living environments that we do.

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