Vital difference

The development of a vaccine which can treat retrovirus diarrhoea marks an important breakthrough in efforts to improve public health. The vaccine was developed and tested entirely in India. Diarrhoea is among the most common threats to the lives of children and babies all over the world. It is estimated that it accounts for the deaths of about 4.5 million children early in their lives.

Almost all these deaths occur in the poor countries and about 22 per cent of them are in India.  It is highly contagious and is  the single biggest cause of child mortalities in the country. While much attention is paid to preventing or treating major ailments, especially those that affect adults, infections that cause the deaths of children on a large scale are often neglected. The fact that they are more prevalent in poor countries or in poor households is the main reason.

What makes the newly developed vaccine most attractive is that it is cheap and affordable.  Other vaccines developed and marketed by multinational drug companies are available but they are prohibitively costly. Some of them are priced up to Rs 2,500. Even those in the low range of price of Rs 1,000 may not be of much help as children need three doses of the vaccine. The new vaccine costs only about Rs 50. Clinical trials conducted till now have been found effective in reducing deaths by as much as 75 per cent. It is hoped that the efficiency can be improved with the help of further research.

The government should take the initiative to make the vaccine available in those areas where it is most needed. Poor sanitation, unclean drinking water and unhygienic living conditions are the main reasons for the affliction. While improving these conditions should receive high priority, the availability of the vaccine will make a vital difference.

Another remarkable aspect of the development of the vaccine is that it is the result of a public-private partnership in medical research. The department of biotechnology funded the research and both government agencies and private companies, some of them from outside the country, were involved in the work. It took about 18 years of scientific and technical research to develop the vaccine. The patient and laborious work needs to be commended. With proper public health extension work it can lead to a situation where diarrhoea will no longer be a threat to life.

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