Rotavirus vaccine offers new tool to combat severe diarrhoea in developing world

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe, acute gastroenteritis among infants and young children throughout the world

Research at the University of Liverpool has found that diarrhoea caused by rotavirus infection could be significantly reduced in the developing world with the use of a vaccine to prevent the condition.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe, acute gastroenteritis among infants and young children throughout the world and is responsible for an estimated 527,000 deaths among children under five each year. More than 90% of childhood deaths attributed to rotavirus infection occur in developing countries. Symptoms include severe diarrhoea and vomiting, leading to loss of fluid and electrolytes which can result in dehydration, shock, and death.

Safety and efficacy trials have already been conducted with two new rotavirus vaccines in Europe and the Americas which found they were more than 90% effective in preventing severe rotavirus gastroenteritis, but until now, no trials had been carried out in Africa or Asia, where the burden of disease is greatest.

One of the rotavirus vaccines – Rotarix, developed by GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals (GSK) – was tested in the Phase III clinical trial in Malawi and South Africa, which found that the vaccine reduced the overall incidence of severe rotavirus diarrhoea by 61.2%, although vaccine efficacy was lower in Malawi (49.4%) compared with South Africa (76.9%). The vaccine was able to prevent more rotavirus diarrhoea episodes in Malawi because of a higher rate of severe disease in the country. The new data informed a recent global recommendation of rotavirus vaccine by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Dr Nigel Cunliffe, Reader in Medical Microbiology at the University of Liverpool, who led the study team in Malawi, said: “These data show for the first time that rotavirus vaccination can prevent severe diarrhoea in an African setting, where almost half of the total global burden of rotavirus deaths occurs.

“They demonstrate the large impact that rotavirus vaccines could have in countries with high diarrhoeal disease burden when introduced into their national childhood immunisation schedules.”

The study in Malawi was conducted through a public-private partnership that included the University of Liverpool, University of Malawi College of Medicine, GAVI, PATH and GSK.  Dr Cunliffe has investigated the disease burden and epidemiology of rotavirus infection in Malawi since 1997 in studies funded by The Wellcome Trust, the WHO and GSK.

The research is published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Notes to editors:

1.  The University of Liverpool is a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive institutions in the UK. It attracts collaborative and contract research commissions from a wide range of national and international organisations valued at more than £98 million annually. For more information please visit

2. PATH is an international non-profit organisation that creates sustainable, culturally relevant solutions, enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycles of poor health. By collaborating with diverse public- and private-sector partners, PATH helps provide appropriate health technologies and vital strategies that change the way people think and act. PATH’s work improves global health and well-being. For more information, please visit

3. GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals (GSK Biologicals), GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccines business, is one of the world’s leading vaccine companies and a leader in innovation. The company is active in the fields of vaccine research, development and production with over 30 vaccines approved for marketing and 20 more in development. Headquartered in Belgium, GSK Biologicals has 13 manufacturing sites strategically positioned around the globe. In 2008 GSK Biologicals distributed 1.1 billion doses of vaccines to 176 countries in both the developed and the developing world – an average of three million doses a day. Through its accomplished and dedicated workforce, GSK Biologicals applies its expertise to discover innovative vaccines that contribute to the health and well-being of people of all generations around the world.

4. The GAVI Alliance is a Geneva-based public-private partnership aimed at improving health in the world’s poorest countries. The Alliance brings together developing country and donor governments, the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Bank, the vaccine industry in both industrialised and developing countries, research and technical agencies, NGOs, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other private philanthropists. GAVI support consists of providing life-saving vaccines and strengthening health systems. Since 2000, 256 million children have been vaccinated and more than four million premature deaths averted thanks to GAVI-funded programmes. For more information, please visit:


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