This article originally appeared in The Guardian (Nigeria).

The deadly Rotavirus has over the years ravaged Nigerian children unchecked. EMEKA ANUFORO of our Abuja Bureau writes on the cheery news that help is on the way as Nigeria finally announces plans to introduce a vaccine against the virus.

ROTAVIRUS diarrhea is considered a big threat to Nigerian children, and causes more than 160,000 deaths in children under five each year. A recent research indicates that the percentage of cases found in Enugu as the highest in Africa. Despite the availability of its vaccine worldwide, the deadly Rotavirus is still a leading cause of severe diarrhea disease and dehydration in infants and young children in Nigeria.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the rotavirus disease causes the death of approximately 527,000 young children yearly. About 85 per cent of these deaths are said to occur in developing countries, mainly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Rotavirus, according to the United States Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a contagious virus that can cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines.

“Symptoms include severe watery diarrhea, often with vomiting, fever, and abdominal pain. Infants and young children are most likely to get rotavirus disease. They can become severely dehydrated and need to be hospitalized and can even die.”

Unfortunately, despite the deadly nature of the virus, Nigeria is yet to introduce a vaccine to contain the disease. The Guardian had reported that the country has not introduced a vaccine to curb the ailment.

But the good news is that come next year, the vaccine for Rotavirus would be available in Nigeria, if assurances by officials are anything to go by.

Executive Director of the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA), Dr Ado Mohammed, whose agency has the mandate for vaccination, told The Guardian that the vaccine would be introduced next year (2015).

He said: “Diarrhea accounts for a major percentage of child mortality in Nigeria. We are working towards introducing rotavirus vaccine as part of other interventions that we are doing. You are aware that we have introduced flavored ORS in Nigeria, you are also aware that we have introduced sinc-surphate treatment regiment for diarrhea in Nigeria.

“We are working towards ensuring that we introduce rotavirus vaccine next year. By 2015, Rotavirus will come on board as part of our vaccine plans so that we can change lives and fast track our attainment of the MDGs goals 4 and 5 and ensure that we reduce to the barest minimum deaths attributable to the virus.”

A recent study indicates that the deadly Rotavirus is still ravaging Nigerian children unchecked.

Checks at the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate that vaccination against rotavirus diarrhea is one of the vaccinations recommended by the global body to be given to all children worldwide.

Rotavirus is seen as the primary cause of diarrhea-related illnesses and deaths, and according to experts, is responsible for 160,000 deaths in under -five (5) Nigerian children each year

A new study published in the Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal reveals that vaccines are available, but Nigeria is yet to introduce the vaccines.

An abstract on the publication stressed: “This study found a relatively high incidence of severe rotavirus-associated diarrhea disease in Nigeria and infants were the most affected. It highlights the urgent need for introduction of rotavirus vaccine into the national immunization program, the need to adequately equip health facilities, to enable them administer intravenous fluids to severe diarrhea patients to reduce morbidity and mortality.”

The researchers found in their study that rotavirus is responsible for close to 56 per cent of cases of diarrhea in children and that more case occur in the cool dry months of the year, a finding now regarded as one of the highest rates of diarrhea caused by rotavirus.

Reports indicate that vaccines are known to offer the best protection, and have indicate that vaccines are known to offer the best protection, and have been proven in study after study to be safe and effective in Africa and around the world.

But unfortunately, Rotavirus vaccines are not yet included in Nigeria’s immunization program.

“If Nigeria’s leaders take action, these lifesaving vaccines could be introduced as early as 2015. Every child is vulnerable, regardless of where they live, and for those in places without medical care it can be a death sentence,” the report noted.

A WHO factsheet on the virus indicate that: “Most symptomatic episodes occur in young children between the ages of 3 months and 2 years. The virus spreads rapidly, presumably through person-to-person contact, airborne droplets, or possibly contact with contaminated toys.

“Symptoms usually appear approximately two to three days after infection, and include projectile vomiting and very watery diarrhoea, often with fever and abdominal pain. The first infection is usually the worst one.

There is no specific drug treatment for rotavirus infection, although oral rehydration therapy is recommended. There are now two new rotavirus vaccines to prevent severe rotavirus disease.”

The study ‘Epidemiology of Rotavirus Diarrhea among Children Younger than 5 Years in Enugu, South East, Nigeria was recently conducted and the results published in Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.

The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal is an official publication of the European Society for Paediatric Infectious Diseases.

The Guardian learnt that researchers from the Nigerian Ministry of Health, Institute for Child Health and University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital, and World Health Organization recently examined the prevalence of rotavirus in hospitalized children under five (5).

The study was conducted in Enugu and found that the percentage of positive cases reported in Enugu was the highest level observed to date by the WHO Regional Office for Africa in Africa

Among other things, the report also found that more than half (56%) of children under 5 hospitalized with diarrhea were found to have rotavirus, while almost all (96%) of these children were under the age of two (2).

A copy of the report obtained by The Guardian describes January as the peak month for rotavirus infections. 95 per cent of rotavirus cases, it stressed, occurred between December and April,

The study particularly drew attention to the urgent need to protect Nigeria’s children from rotavirus.

The study noted:  “Severe rotavirus diarrhea in children is a major cause of morbidity globally and mortality in developing countries. It is estimated to be responsible for 453,000 deaths in children less than 5 years of age globally and 232,000 in the African region. The aim of the current study was to determine the prevalence of rotavirus gastroenteritis among hospitalized children less than 5 years of age in Enugu and to support awareness and advocacy efforts for the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in Nigeria…

“This study found a relatively high incidence of severe rotavirus-associated diarrhea disease in Nigeria and infants were the most affected. It highlights the urgent need for introduction of rotavirus vaccine into the national immunization program and the need to adequately equip health facilities so as  to enable them administer intravenous fluids to severe diarrhea patients to reduce morbidity and mortality.”

But President of the Nigerian Academy of Science, Prof Oyewale Tomori confirmed that the vaccines had not been introduced in Nigeria and called attention to the urgent need for the Nigerian government to introduce the vaccine into the nation’s vaccination program.

In an interview with The Guardian, he stressed how many of the countries that have introduced Rota vaccine no longer contend with polio, while measles is a minor problem such countries

According to him, “We need to accelerate the introduction of rotavirus vaccine in Nigeria. The vaccine is available for any nation who considers it important enough to give their children.”

On his thoughts on why government was yet o introduce the vaccine, Tomori, who is a virologist, stressed: “I think the government has done a fairly good job, but as we say ‘ water pass gari’.  The government has introduced new vaccines and plans to introduce more between now and 2015. The vaccines include Penta, Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine  (PCV), Human Papilloma Virus Vaccine, (HPV), Tetanus and fractional diphtheria (Td), measles-rubella vaccine (MRV) and rotavirus vaccine

“However, we could do more with the resources we have, if we spend our money wisely and judiciously. We hear of competing interests against vaccinating our children. I wish those competing interests were important things and issues. The things competing against providing our children with vaccines include: wastage, undue process, looting, stealing with conspicuous and obscene life style.”

On the likely implication of non-introduction of the vaccine on Nigerian children, he stressed; “Many of them will die from preventable diseases and we will not meet some of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).”

He, nevertheless, gave kudos to the efforts of the Nigerian government in introducing vaccines for a number of child killer ailments, but noted:  “The government is trying, but we have too many disease conditions we should have controlled a long time ago.”

The Guardian reached out to a co-author of the study, Dr. George Armah, who noted that there had been several reports on the contribution of rotavirus to the large mortality in children which were in the possession of the Nigerian government.

Armah, Senior Research Fellow and Associate Professor at the University of Ghana, stressed that the introduction of rotavirus vaccines would help avert the risk of the more 41,000 kids dying from this vaccine preventable disease.

“It will reduce considerable the lost time for mothers who have to attend their sick children as well save the economy a lot of Naira from the treatment cost of the disease. “

He said the latest study aimed to determine the prevalence of rotavirus gastroenteritis among hospitalized children less than five years of age in Enugu.

“The data from this study was to augment support awareness and advocacy efforts for the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in Nigeria,” he noted.

He told The Guardian: “The main findings were that more than 50% of children admitted to the hospital with severe diarrhea infected with the human rotavirus. The majority of these unfortunate children (77%) were less than 12 months of age. These are very small and delicate children. The ones who made it to the hospital are the very lucky ones who will survive.

“For an unfortunate child in a hard to reach and inaccessible part of rural Nigeria – it is a death sentence and a lot of anxiety for the parents. The study showed that the incidence of disease, the months at which infection is at its peak (October to February) are very similar to countries in the sub-region and introduction of vaccines will help ameliorate the burden of disease as is being observed in countries that have introduced the vaccines in their Expanded Programme on Immunisation.