LAHORE - Punjab has introduced the Rotavirus Vaccine in the routine immunization schedule of the Expanded Program on Immunization, Minister for Primary and Secondary Healthcare Kh Imran Nazir announced at the launching ceremony of Rotavirus Vaccine at Royal Palm Golf and Country Club yesterday.

Minister for Specialized Health and Medical Education Kh Salman Rafique, Secretary P&SH Ali Jan Khan, Senior Country Manager Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Dr Hamidreza Setayesh, Country Representative, UNICEF Pakistan, Belgium Ambassador to Pakistan Ms Frederic Verheyden, Federal EPI Manager Dr Saqlain Gillani, Professors from leading teaching hospitals and representatives from WHO and the Gates Foundation attended the ceremony.

The rotavirus vaccine will be the 10th vaccine to be introduced in the immunization programme. Administered in two oral doses for children of 6 weeks as well as 10 weeks of age, it will help reduce the diarrhea related mortality in children below five.

Punjab reports around 1.2 million cases of diarrhea annually with thousands deaths due to diarrhea including 40-45 per cent related to Rotavirus.

Kh Imran Nazir said that in the first phase, the vaccine is being introduced in six districts: Lahore, Multan, Khushab, Kasur, Mandi Bahauddin and Muzaffargarh reaching more than 1 million children. The vaccine will be later introduced in the rest of the province which accounts for 20 per cent of Pakistan birth cohort. The Punjab launch also kicks off the national roll-out of the life-saving vaccine.

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

Kh Salman Rafique said: “The year 2016 has been a year of successes for EPI in Punjab: Introduction of a new vaccine, a year without a polio case and validation of Mother and Neo Natal Tetanus are great achievements. With innovation and enhanced supervision and monitoring, Punjab has been able to increase its routine immunization coverage (Penta 3) from 64 per cent in 2014 to over 86 per cent within one year.” He regretted that in some cases people expressed inhospitality with polio workers despite the fact that they had come to save their children.

“GAVI commends the government for its strong leadership and financial commitment to introduce rotavirus vaccine,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of GAVI, and the Vaccine Alliance. “By protecting the children 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 significantly 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 diarrhea that it can cause. Life-saving rotavirus vaccines need to 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 congratulate the government on this significant achievement, which means that the lives of thousands of children will be saved every year. Punjab is truly showing the way for the rest of the country.”

National EPI Program Manager, Dr Syed Saqlain Ahmed Gilani, said that immunization was one of the most powerful and cost-effective of all health interventions. EPI is providing free of cost vaccination against nine vaccine preventable diseases. Inclusion of rotavirus vaccine, the tenth antigen will boost immunity of children against diarrhea and significantly reduce the burden of disease amongst children under five.