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Diarrhea Still Killing Millions, Studies Show

Okay, so maybe we have enough studies now. It’s come down to how much money we want to spend to prevent a child’s death.

Diarrhea is a leading killer of children in the developing world, killing anywhere from 1 to 2 million children per year (the numbers tend to run all over the place). This puts diarrhea in the same class as AIDS, TB and malaria though it seldom gets anywhere near the same attention or funding.

A particularly nasty virus known as rotavirus causes the most severe form of diarrheal disease and is estimated to cause half to a third of all cases worldwide.


Rotavirus, by electron microscope

Graham Colm, Wikimedia

This week, the Lancet published two studies done in Asia and Africa showing (again) that vaccination against rotavirus significantly cut the deadly infection rates by about half. If widely distributed in the poorest countries, that translates into preventing at least a quarter million child deaths per year.

The vaccine has been around for a long time and many have long been pushing it as a cost-effective means for reducing one of the world’s leading killers of children.

“No matter where we look in the world, this vaccine has the potential for tremendous public health impact,” said John Wecker, chief of vaccine access and delivery for PATH, who was in Cape Town, South Africa, this week following an international conference focused on defeating rotavirus.

PATH, which has long been an advocate for the rotavirus vaccine, co-sponsored the recent clinical trials as well as the meeting in South Africa.

“The evidence is there, but in order to move forward we need funding,” Wecker said. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization estimates it will need about $2.6 billion more from donors if it is to expand access in poor countries to vaccines against rotavirus and pneumonia (the other big killer of children).

Rotavirus Vaccination


Nicaraguan baby receiving rotavirus vaccine

That might sound like a lot of money, but it isn’t really if viewed as a means for saving millions of lives in a matter of years and avoiding all of the costs that attend this most common affliction.

Improvements to water and sanitation are ultimately needed in most of these communities as well, of course, to fight other causes of diarrhea.

But rotavirus can spread even with improved water and sanitation, only failing to kill as many here in the U.S. because our babies here have ready access to life-saving hospital care (and clean water). To put a serious dent in childhood mortality now, many more children will need to receive the rotavirus vaccine.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.