BC-MED-MEXICO-VACCINE:WA – world, itop (550 words)

World health officials introduce vaccine against rotavirus


By Susana Hayward

Knight Ridder Newspapers


MEXICO CITY – World health officials announced Friday the development of a new vaccine against rotavirus, a disease that causes diarrhea and is responsible for the deaths of more than 600,000 children annually.

Scientists hailed the new vaccine as a major step toward curbing childhood mortality, saying that 39 percent of the 1.6 million children who die from diarrhea yearly in the developing world fall victim to rotavirus. They predicted the vaccine would have a major impact on life expectancy and economics in developing countries.

“A 10-year gain in life expectancy translates into nearly 1 additional percentage point in annual income growth,” said David Bloom, of the Harvard School of Public Health. He’s one of 400 scientists attending the Sixth International Rotavirus Symposium, where the announcement was made. The conference here was convened by the Albert B. Sabin Vaccine Institute and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The vaccine could prove particularly important in curbing childhood deaths in countries where nutrition and health care may be lacking. Children in such countries die far more frequently from the dehydrating effects of diarrhea than in the developed world.

The vast majority of rotavirus deaths occur in Asia and Africa. Only 50 children died in the United States last year from rotavirus, while 15,000 died in Latin America, 2,000 of those in Mexico, the scientists said.

“Rotavirus is a disease that is not preventable with clean water or hygiene,” said John Wecker, the director of the Rotavirus Vaccine Program, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization. “It’s indiscriminate and is the most common cause of diarrhea hospitalizations and deaths among children worldwide.”

Wecker said the vaccine was made possible with a $30 million grant from the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization, UNICEF and funds from private donors in Europe and the United States, including Microsoft creator Bill Gates.

The vaccine, Rotarix, will be produced by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and is effective against one strain of rotavirus. Merck & Co. is working to develop another version that would be effective against all four of the diseases’ strains.

The vaccine was first tested in Mexico, where 60,000 children received it, and will be widely available here next year. It will be introduced in other countries over the next two years. Cost of the vaccine, which would be given orally in two or three doses to children at routine immunizations, hasn’t been determined.

Rotavirus is spread by contaminated objects, water or food and possibly through coughing or sneezing. It often begins with flu-like symptoms such as fever, vomiting and nausea, and can quickly lead to dehydration.

In the United States, the virus is responsible for approximately 3 million cases of diarrhea and 55,000 hospitalizations in children 5 years old and younger annually, scientists said. But deaths are rare.

Health representatives from 16 countries in the Americas said in a declaration Friday that the new vaccine “could reduce mortality from the disease by up to 60 percent if included in national immunization programs of our region.”

The 16 countries were Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Paraguay, Saint Vincent, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.

(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-09-04 1854EDT

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