The effectiveness of the vaccine in developed countries is more than 90% compared to a dismal 60% in developing countries such as Uganda
By Dr Diana Atwine
Rotavirus causes severe diarrhea in children. It can result in death. It commonly affects unvaccinated children below five years.
The virus is highly contagious and may cause symptoms such as fever, vomiting and watery diarrhoea, which can lead to severe and life-threatening dehydration in an incubation period of about two days.
Uganda has embraced universal immunisation of children against rotavirus to boost their immunity against the virus. The introduction of free Rotavirus vaccine into routine immunisation at health facilities in the country is geared towards averting numerable deaths, hospitalisation and health expenditure currently faced by most households.
Different reports indicate that before the discovery of the vaccine, about 64-80% of children below five years would experience at least one rotavirus infection in childhood and early infancy, of which over 95% occurred in countries in Africa and Asia.
In Uganda, over 37% of children admitted at our health facilities with acute diarrhea have rotavirus infection. This clearly increases our health care expenditure yet rotavirus is very preventable. Although improvements in water, sanitation and hygiene are key in prevention of diarrheal diseases, a vaccine against rotavirus is a game changer compared to these preventive measures alone.
Interestingly, studies show that universal vaccination of children (under 1 year of age) against rotavirus reduces diarrhoea related hospitalisations in older children and even adults. This is called “herd immunity” and is a concept that when some members of a community are immunised against a certain disease, even those that are not vaccinated are protected from it. Everyone stands to benefit from the introduction of this vaccine into the immunisation schedule.
Nevertheless, the effectiveness of the vaccine in developed countries is more than 90% compared to a dismal 60% in developing countries such as Uganda. While we await better performing vaccines in low-income settings, simple measures such as breastfeeding and improving the nutritional status of children increases the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Therefore, to realise the full benefits of the vaccine that have been observed in other countries, we all have a role to play. I encourage mothers to take all children at six weeks and 10 weeks of age for immunisation at any of the Government health facilities across the country. This should be coupled with hygiene practices, breastfeeding and offering a balanced diet to children.
I also implore our national and local leaders, health workers and different technical and religious leaders at all levels to help educate mothers about the need for rotavirus vaccination during antenatal, delivery and postnatal visits. I also beseech you all to be vigilant and manage the rare side effects of the vaccine such as irritability, mild fever, a short lived diarrhoea and the rarest but most serious of them all, intestinal obstruction.
Parents are also encouraged to ensure that their children get all the 11 vaccines that are provided by the Government and its development partners through the Ministry of Health in its effort to consolidate on the impressive health indicators attributed to immunisation, whose coverage currently stands at about 95.2%.
These vaccines are measles, polio, BCG against tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough (pertussis) and tetanus, Hepatitis B, Heamophilus influenza type b, pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), human papilloma virus vaccine (HPV) and inactivated polio vaccine (IPV).
All the vaccines offered by Ministry of Health under routine immunisation are free of charge. They are approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and are very effective in preventing diseases when all recommended doses have been completed.
The Government has gone ahead to introduce the Rotavirus vaccine in our routine immunisation schedule as a boost to the already existing measures of diarrheal diseases control in our children and an investment into the future for a healthy and productive population.
In conclusion, parents are advised to always seek medical examination and appropriate management from the nearest health facility for any child who develops fever and severe diarrhoea as this could be rotavirus or any other diarrheal diseases that may take the child’s life incase of any delays for medical attention.
Writer is the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health