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New vaccines save lives of children in Fiji

Research News
Thursday, October 6, 2016 - 11:30am
The introduction of three new vaccines to Fiji has had a significant impact on reducing life-threatening diseases including pneumonia, diarrhoea and cervical cancer among women and children, a new Murdoch Children's Research Institute study shows.

The study analysed the impact of the pneumococcal, rotavirus and human papillomavirus vaccines, which were introduced to Fiji in 2012 and 2013 with the assistance of the Australian Government. More than 90 per cent coverage for all three vaccines has been achieved by the Fiji Ministry of Health.

The pneumococcal immunisation targets pneumonia, severe blood infections (sepsis) and infection in the brain (meningitis). The rotavirus vaccine prevents life-threatening diarrhoea in children and the human papillomavirus vaccine (HPV) protects against cervical cancer.

Pneumonia and diarrhoea are among the most common causes of childhood deaths worldwide and are both major health burdens in Fiji. Cervical cancer is the most common cause of cancer in women in Fiji.

Fiji is one of a few Pacific Island countries that have introduced these vaccines into their national immunisation schedules but there is little data on their impact.

The evaluation project found there was a high burden of pneumococcal disease in Fiji before the vaccine was introduced. After its introduction, hospital admissions for pneumonia in children under five almost halved from about 1000 to 500 each year, while those for meningitis and invasive pneumoccal disease also dropped.  

The study showed that after the vaccine was introduced, carriage of the disease-causing germ pneumococcal declined in all age groups. This should reduce diseases from these germs and mean fewer children die or suffer brain damage and disability, which is common in children who survive meningitis.

There were nearly 900 hospital admissions for diarrhoea in children under five each year before the rotavirus immunisation was available. Thirty-nine per cent of these were caused by rotavirus. Following the vaccine introduction, these admissions dropped by about 240 – a 29 per cent reduction – and only 12 per cent of admissions were due to rotavirus.

“There has been a decline of 70 per cent in rotavirus diarrhoea admissions in children of all ages under five years old,” said Associate Professor Fiona Russell from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, a partner in the research with the Fiji Ministry of Health and Medical Services.

Rates of cervical cancer in Fiji are among the highest in the Pacific region. Despite the cervical cancer screening program operating at full capacity, less than 10 per cent of women are screened. Two women are diagnosed with cervical cancer a week and most die because detection is too late.

The study compared protection from two and three doses of the HPV vaccine (the WHO recommendation of three doses has recently been updated to two) and found protective antibody levels were similar in both groups of girls, six to seven years after the vaccination.

Meanwhile, there were lower detection rates of the most common cancer-causing HPV genotypes following introduction of the vaccines. It takes 10 to 20 years to show effects on cervical cancer so the study is ongoing.

“Young girls who are vaccinated today will be protected from developing the most common cause of cancer in Fiji,” A/Prof Russell said.

She said the most important factor from the study results were that the vaccines have resulted in healthier Fijian children. “Healthier children result in a number of social and economic benefits for Fiji,” she said. “Fewer children getting sick results in improved educational outcomes and improved income generation for parents needing to spend less time caring for sick or disabled children.”

Media Contacts

Inga Feitsma, MCRI Communications Manager – 03 9936 6336 or 0408 657 741

Available for interview:

Associate Professor Fiona Russell