Healthy children grow up to build prosperous nations. A healthy child has the energy to learn more in school, help her parents with their farm or business and become a productive adult. Her parents can focus on their work instead of tending to a sick child. When children are healthy, the positive economic effects are felt not only within their families, but across communities and countries. Child health is the cornerstone of sustainable economic growth, stronger nations and a brighter future for our continent.
To ensure the health of our children, we must protect them from diseases like diarrhea. Despite the fact that it can be prevented and treated, diarrhea continues to take a devastating toll on Africa. It’s a leading cause of child death in Africa and globally, and it is responsible for sickening and hospitalizing millions of children.
In fact, rotavirus, the most common cause of severe, deadly diarrhea, claims the lives of more than 600 African children under age five each day. That’s nearly a quarter of a million of our children each year. In Nigeria alone, over 41,000 rotavirus diarrhea deaths occur annually, the second-highest of any country worldwide.
We can stop illnesses and deaths from diarrheal diseases using a comprehensive approach focused on preventing illness in the first place and treating children if they do become sick. Diarrhea can be prevented with an approach that includes exclusive breastfeeding, access to safe drinking water and improved sanitation and hygiene, as well as by using vaccines, like rotavirus vaccines. When children do become sick with diarrhea, they can be treated with oral rehydration solution (ORS)—a simple mixture containing sugar, salt and safe water and zinc supplements. However, in some cases, the severe dehydration diarrhea can lead to may require intravenous fluids and urgent medical care. For too many of our children this care is out of reach, which makes protecting them through prevention efforts, such as vaccination, essential to ending diarrhea’s deadly toll in Africa.
Today, the most powerful tools to prevent severe diarrhea caused by rotavirus, which causes approximately half of all diarrhea deaths in Africa, are rotavirus vaccines.
As researchers and doctors, we’ve been on the front lines, working to understand the impact vaccines, like rotavirus vaccines, can have in Africa. Today, the existing body of research is robust and demonstrates rotavirus vaccines provide broad protection against severe rotavirus diarrhea, even against strains not included in the vaccines. These vaccines have been shown to significantly reduce the number of diarrhea-related illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths among children.
Just months ago Ghana, introduced rotavirus vaccines and already more than 60 percent of eligible children have received the rotavirus vaccine. Six other sub-Saharan African countries—Botswana, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan and Tanzania—have introduced these vaccines into their national immunization programs. Zambia has introduced them regionally, and others—Angola, Burundi, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar, Niger, Sierra Leone, Togo and Zimbabwe—are planning to include the vaccines in their efforts to control diarrhea. But many more countries need to be reached and there’s more work to be done to protect all of Africa’s children. If, for example, Nigeria could introduce rotavirus vaccines into the routine immunization, the country would be preventing the deaths of thousands of children each year.
We have seen for ourselves that when children are protected from debilitating illnesses like diarrhea, they can grow up to learn better in school and be more productive, helping to lift their families, communities—and countries—out of poverty.
With this in mind, as our leaders gather at the African Union Summit to discuss the most pressing matters facing the continent, we want to remind them of a core AU objective: the eradication of preventable diseases. This work must start with our children. We must fight diseases that are taking children’s lives with the best tools we have. We know what is needed to stop diarrhea—a comprehensive approach. We urge our leaders to work toward an Africa where every child has access to prevention and treatment tools like vaccines, ORS and zinc that not only improve health, but save lives. Our future depends on it.
Dr. Oyewale Tomori from Nigeria’s Redeemer's University, and Dr. George Armah from Ghana’s Noguchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research at the University of Ghana, are members of the Rotavirus Organization of Technical Allies (ROTA) Council, an organization of technical experts working to save children’s lives and improve health.