India's local rotavirus vaccine launched to combat death linked to diarrhea

A new rotavirus vaccine created under a joint public-private partnership in India has launched this week to fight the serious and often fatal diarrheal disease in young children.

Of India's more than 2.3 million annual deaths among children, about 334,000 are attributable to diarrheal diseases, with the highly contagious rotavirus being the leading cause of severe diarrhea in children in developed and developing countries.

India's health minister, J.P. Nadda, called the launch of the new vaccine a "historic moment" for the country, adding that it was "a new milestone towards expanding the coverage of full immunisation in the country aimed at reducing child mortality."

This will be one of the largest public health campaigns in its history, with plans to immunize millions of children against the virus, which can also stunt growth among survivors.

The vaccine is being introduced initially in four states--Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha--and will be expanded to the entire country in a phased manner, Nadda said.

"Adding this life-saving vaccine to our immunisation programme will not only improve the health of our children but also reduce hospitalisation and other conditions associated with diarrhea due to rotavirus such as malnutrition, delayed physical and mental development among children. Reduced hospitalization lower the economic burden on the family and the health cost burden on the country," the minister added.

India's health minister J.P. Nadda

The vaccine, known as Rotavac, was developed with India's Science and Technology, and Health, ministries supporting local company Bharat Biotech. It also had the not-insignificant support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) and Merck ($MRK) make rotavirus vaccines, but the Bharat Biotech version costs about $3 per child compared with around $45 for vaccines from international pharmaceutical companies and researchers say it is equally effective, according to the WSJ.

Sanofi ($SNY) has also worked with local partner, Hyderabad-based Shantha Biotechnics, on a rotavirus vaccine.

Vaccines for rotavirus have existed for many years, but India has been focused on other diseases--such as the polio virus--and lost sight of the growing threat of the rotavirus, health officials said.

But according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is considerable controversy in India regarding the introduction of rotavirus vaccines, especially because of uncertainty surrounding the estimates of deaths and hospitalizations caused by rotavirus, and because of the current cost of the vaccines.

Studies estimate that around 90,000 to 153,000 children die from rotavirus infection in India each year--but these numbers are not based on nationally representative samples, according to WHO. The health ministry said in a statement that the creation and launch of its vaccine was an "appropriate investment."

This comes in the same week that GSK said it is planning to launch combination vaccines in India, including new pediatric shots will address diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis B and polio.

- see the Economic Times' article
- check out WHO's rotavirus statistics