Rotavirus vaccine introduced to protect 1M children in Punjab

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Punjab has introduced the rotavirus vaccine in the routine immunisation schedule of the expanded program on immunisation (EPI), Minister for Primary and Secondary Healthcare Khawaja Imran Nazir announced at the launching ceremony of the vaccine here on Friday.

The launching ceremony was attended by Minister for Specialized Health and Medical Education Khawaja Salman Rafique, Secretary for Primary and Secondary Healthcare Ali Jan Khan, Vaccine Alliance Gavi Senior Country Manager Dr Hamidreza Setayesh, the UNICEF Pakistan country representative, Belgium’s Ambassador to Pakistan Frederic Verheyden, Federal EPI Manager Dr. Saqlain Gillani, professors from the leading teaching hospitals and representatives from the WHO and the Gates foundation.

The rotavirus vaccine will be the 10th vaccine to be introduced in the immunisation program. Administered in two oral doses to children between 6 weeks and 10 weeks of age, it will help reduce diarrhoea related mortality in children below the age of five.

Punjab reports around 1.2 million cases of diarrhoea annually with thousands of deaths attributed to diarrhoea, of which, 40-45% are related to rotavirus.

Khawaja Imran Nazir said that in the first phase, the vaccine will be introduced in six districts, Lahore, Multan, Khushab, Kasur, Mandi Bahauddin and Muzaffargarh, reaching more than 1 million children. The vaccine will later be introduced in the rest of the province which accounts for 20% of Pakistani birth.

“The introduction of the rotavirus vaccine is a historical moment for Punjab. The vaccine will reduce diarrhoea-related mortality in the province by a significant margin. We are grateful to our international development partners, Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF, and the WHO, for providing vaccines as well as technical and material support for introducing the new vaccine,” Kh Imran Nazir said

Khawaja Salman Rafique said, “The year 2016 has been a year of successes for EPI in Punjab. The introduction of a new vaccine, a year without a polio case, and validation of mother and neonatal tetanus are great achievements. With innovation and enhanced supervision and monitoring, Punjab has been able to increase its routine immunisation coverage from 64 % in 2014 to over 86% in 2015,”

He regretted that though the polio workers for from door to door for vaccination, some people express hostility towards them. They don’t realise that the workers have come to save their children. instead, they should be thankful to them,” Kh Salman Rafique said.

“Gani commends the Punjab provincial government for its strong leadership and financial commitment to introduce the rotavirus vaccine,” said Gavi CEO Dr Seth Berkley. “By protecting the children of Punjab from one of the largest causes of childhood mortality, this vaccine has the potential to save thousands of lives every year. And this impact will increase even further once the vaccine is rolled out nationwide with GAVI support.”

Vaccination is the best way to prevent severe rotavirus disease and the deadly, dehydrating diarrhoea that it can cause. Life-saving rotavirus vaccines need be introduced as part of a comprehensive approach to control diarrheal disease, along with other interventions including oral rehydration therapy, exclusive breastfeeding, zinc treatment, and improvements in water and sanitation.

Angela Kearney, the country Representative of UNICEF in Pakistan said: “I warmly congratulate Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the government on this significant achievement, which means that the lives of thousands of children will be saved every year.”

National EPI Program Manager Dr Syed Saqlain Ahmed Gilani said that immunisation is one of the most powerful and cost-effective health interventions. The expanded program on immunisation is providing free of cost vaccination against nine preventable diseases. Inclusion of the rotavirus vaccine, the tenth antigen will boost immunity of children against diarrhoea and significantly reduce the occurrence of the disease amongst children under five.

He expressed gratitude on behalf of Minister for State Saira Afzal Tarr to all EPI colleagues and development partners who worked relentlessly to accomplish the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine into the schedule.