In recent weeks, the government of Uganda has taken an important step to protect the health of its most vulnerable citizens — a rotavirus vaccine is now available around the country free of charge. This new expansion of Uganda’s vaccination program has the potential to impact the lives of tens of thousands of people for decades to come.
The Threat of Rotavirus
Rotavirus is a highly-contagious disease that causes fever, diarrhea and vomiting. Together, these symptoms often cause severe dehydration, which can be deadly if it goes untreated. Children under the age of five are especially vulnerable — more than 450,000 die each year across the globe. Eighty percent of those deaths occur in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Unlike other diarrhea-causing diseases, rotavirus is difficult to fight with improved sanitation alone. It can be spread by a variety of methods including person-to-person contact or eating contaminated raw vegetables. In Uganda, even owning a dog makes infection much more likely.
Rotavirus in Uganda
Diarrhea in general and rotavirus in particular have an enormous impact on public health in Uganda.
- Diarrhea is in the top five causes of death for Ugandan children younger than five.
- Rotavirus causes around 40 percent of diarrhea cases for Ugandan children younger than five.
- Over 10,000 of those young Ugandan children with rotavirus die each year.
Of course, thousands of other children also suffer from milder cases of the disease. Since rotavirus is so resilient and easily-spread, fighting it requires a comprehensive strategy. While sanitation must play an important role in that strategy, both the CDC and the WHO recommend using rotavirus vaccines as a crucial method to protect children from the disease. Thankfully, the Ugandan government has begun doing just that.
Impact and Costs
The ongoing distribution of the rotavirus vaccine will not be without its challenges. The vaccine is free, safe to administer alongside other vaccines and can be given to infants as young as 6 weeks old, but it requires multiple doses to be fully effective and is not a 100 percent guarantee of immunity.
During the program’s rollout, the Prime Minister of Uganda urged citizens to ensure that children went through their entire immunization schedule. He also re-emphasized the importance of proper sanitation measures like handwashing in maintaining everyone’s safety.
Despite the potential for setbacks, though, the rotavirus vaccine has the potential to save thousands of lives across the country. The CDC estimates that 70 percent of vaccinated children are protected from rotavirus entirely and as many as 90 percent are protected from the most severe, often deadly, cases.
Four Million Lives
Studies on the long-term results of a vaccination program in Uganda reveal that these percentages could yield incredible results in the coming decades. In next twenty years, the vaccination program will likely only cost the Ugandan government a net $50 million after accounting for saved healthcare expenses. For that investment, the vaccine will prevent an estimated four million cases of rotavirus and save the lives of more than 70,000 young children.
The Ugandan government clearly realizes this amazing potential and has vocally supported the program. The Minister of Health praised it as an important step toward building a healthier and more productive population. Hopefully, time will further illustrate the program’s results and live up to its incredible potential.
– Josh Henreckson