Scientists assess new vaccines to improve health of African children

Respiratory infections and diarrhoeal diseases kill approximately four million children each year, with most deaths occurring in developing countries.  New vaccines for Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacterium that causes pneumonia, and rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhoea, have proved successful in preventing the development of the diseases in clinical trials, but have yet to be used routinely in many parts of Africa.

As part of a £2.3 million project, scientists from Liverpool, London, Malawi, USA and Japan will monitor the impact of the vaccines as they are introduced in Malawi over the next five years.  Focusing on three Wellcome Trust-funded research sites in Malawi, the team will investigate how effective the new vaccines are in areas where morbidity is high and strains of rotavirus and pneumococcus are diverse.  

Scientists will also assess whether conditions such as malnutrition and HIV, which are common in African children, could influence the success of the vaccination programme.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe, acute gastroenteritis among infants and young children throughout the world. Symptoms include severe diarrhoea and vomiting, leading to loss of fluid and dehydration.  Streptococcus pneumoniae is a major cause of pneumonia, blood stream infection and meningitis. 

Dr Nigel Cunliffe, from the University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, explains: “Early vaccination to prevent disease caused by rotavirus and Streptococcus pneumoniae is crucial in Africa, but we have limited evidence of how well these new vaccines will work in the world’s most impoverished countries when delivered as part of the routine childhood immunisation schedule. 

“Underlying medical conditions, the wide diversity of circulating strains in this region, and delayed immunisation may all adversely impact on vaccine performance.  It is vital that the effectiveness of vaccination is carefully assessed in order to optimise the tremendous benefit these vaccines will bring to the health of children in Africa.  Working in partnership with the Malawi Ministry of Health, this study will provide a framework for investigating other vaccine-preventable diseases across the country.”  

The research, funded by the Wellcome Trust, will be undertaken in collaboration with Professor Robert Heyderman at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Dr Neil French at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as researchers at University College London, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nagasaki University, and the Malawi Ministry of Health.

Notes to editors:

1. Wellcome Trust research centres include:

• Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme in Blantyre is a laboratory-based health research institution led by Malawian and international scientists in partnership with the University of Malawi College of Medicine.
• MaiMwana project based in Mchinji has conducted population-based research and development activities related to mother and child health since 2003. It works in collaboration with the Malawi Ministry of Health, Mchinji District Hospital and Kamuzu Central Hospital, and the Centre for International Health and Development at University College London.
• Karonga Prevention Study (KPS) in Chilumba is a research organisation that has operated in the northern district of Malawi for the past 30 years undertaking large scale epidemiology studies of locally important diseases. The programme is partnered by the Infectious Diseases Epidemiology Unit of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
2. The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust’s breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests.

3. 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.

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