The burden of rotavirus in Africa
I vividly remember the night, nine years ago, when I franticly rushed my 9 month old son to Nairobi hospital due to a bad bout of diarrhea.
Being my second child, I'd thought I'd seen all there was to see regarding the usual childhood illness: flu, diarrhea and the occasional case of tonsillitis. But this time, this bout of diarrhea seemed much worse than the ‘usual'; my child was literally wasting away fast. He was diagnosed with rotavirus. The only known course of treatment was oral rehydration therapy. My 3-year old twin daughters are even luckier and words cannot express my relief that they have been vaccinated against rotavirus.
Many mothers in Kenya, especially in the rural areas don't share in my gratitude. Many of them lose their children to diarrhea, mainly as a result of rotavirus. In fact, surveillance data newly published supplement of the Journal of Infectious Diseases shows that there is an even greater prevalence of rotavirus in Africa than previously recorded. So prevalent is diarrhea, especially in children under five, that it is misconstrued to be a normal stage of children's growth. Unfortunately, so ingrained is this myth that many a rural mother will not bother to rehydrate their sick children until it is too late. Few mothers know how to manage and treat diarrhea in children at home. Even fewer know that a vaccine against rotavirus exists.
The new surveillance data only heightens the urgency for access to rotavirus vaccines. Unfortunately, many African countries have not yet included them in national immunization programs. Fortunately, however, policy makers, health professionals and a growing number from the general population acknowledge the crucial role rotavirus vaccine plays in reducing child mortality. A lot still remains to be done and every effort must be seized to educate, inform and advocate for vaccine developments. The Journal of Infectious Diseases new supplement on rotavirus vaccines in Africa offers a superb channel to further advocate for increased access to vaccines, especially where they are needed most.
-- Turi Omollo is a Communications Officer for PATH and is based in Kenya.