John Wecker

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The obscure bug that set off Bill Gates, awakening a geeky giant | 

Tom Paulson

Nelson Zambrana cradles his child sick from rotavirus in Nicaraguan hospital

It kills anywhere from a quarter-million to half-a-million kids every year and is one of the world’s leading causes of child mortality.

But it wasn’t too long ago hardly anybody had even heard of it.

Rotavirus — the killer bug that set off Bill Gates and gave direction to his philanthropy.

“No matter where we looked in the world, about 40 percent of all kids under 5 years old in hospitals for severe and life-threatening diarrhea had rotavirus,” said John Wecker, head of Seattle-based PATH’s vaccine access and delivery program. PATH has a long history advocating for a rotavirus vaccine.

“We’d go into these countries where huge numbers of kids were dying from diarrhea and they’d say ‘Rota what?” Wecker said. “We don’t have that here. Nobody had ever heard of it.”

Today, an international group that represents the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s single largest philanthropic project aimed at expanding children’s vaccinations announced it was launching a major new global jab against rotavirus and another big killer of young children, pneumococcal disease. The campaign focuses on Africa, where these two infectious diseases are rampant.

“The death toll of rotavirus and pneumococcal infections in Africa is particularly devastating, and this is where these vaccines will make the most significant impact, not only in lives saved, but also in terms of healthy lives lived,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of this group known as GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

It’s a major milestone for GAVI, for a number of reasons, but in a way just another big step forward in a decade of significant progress for this alliance created to expand access to childhood immunizations in poor countries.

Since it was launched, hundreds of millions of children have been vaccinated and an estimated 5 million deaths prevented.

That’s more deaths averted than has so far been credited to the much-larger Global Fund for Fighting AIDS, TB and Malaria — or any other single project in the global health arena, for that matter. Continue reading

Fight against top cause of deadly diarrhea, rotavirus, launched today | 

Tom Paulson

No doctor, no medicine at clinic in rural Nigeria

It is a stunning fact that bears repeating:

Diarrhea is one the world’s big killers. Every year, diarrhea is estimated to kill anywhere from one to 2 million people, children mostly — about as many die annually from malaria.

Much of this is due to dirty, contaminated water.

But a major cause of the most severe and deadly form of diarrhea is a bug called rotavirus. Bill Gates has said it was when he read about this virus, or more accurately the stunning number of deaths it causes in poor countries (about 500,000, a half to a third of the global diarrhea death toll), that initially set him on his global health mission as a philanthropist.

Today, a global immunization project (which, not incidentally, was launched by the Gates Foundation and Seattle-based PATH a decade ago) has started expanding access in Africa to vaccines that prevent rotavirus infection.

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, GAVI, today announced the first child — in Khartoum, Sudan — to be vaccinated in a new rotavirus immunization campaign that aims to reach millions of vulnerable children in 40 low- or middle-income countries.

“Rotavirus vaccines save children’s lives and our mission is to ensure we get these vaccines to children in Africa and throughout the developing world as quickly as possible. These are the places where rotavirus has the most devastating impact”, said Helen Evans, GAVI interim CEO.

GAVI, as you may recall, recently completed a highly successful fund-raising campaign that has allowed it to expand its portfolio of vaccines to include new vaccines against pneumonia and rotavirus.

Here’s a nice perspective on the rotavirus vaccine roll-out by John Wecker of PATH, one of those who have worked for years to expand access to the vaccine worldwide.