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Saving our children

Recently rolled out vaccines for everyday medical conditions in the Pacific promise to save the lives of tens of thousands of infant children.

Pneumonia and diarrhoea are the leading causes of mortality in Pacific children that are aged under five years.

About one in every three pneumonia deaths are from pneumococcal conjugate disease, commonly transmitted through contact with infected children.

Deaths after birth have dropped in the region from 34 out of every 1000 babies in 1990 to 25 babies by 2013, but the most recent figures remain comparatively high compared to worldwide cases.

Improving access to oxygen has previously reduced mortality from childhood pneumonia by 35 per cent, but an oxygenated solution has been too much of a challenge both logistically and financially.

Pacific medical help
A mother cradles her dehydrated child under care. Picture: UNICEF Pacific.

According to associate professor Fiona Russell, of the University of Melbourne, most infant deaths from pneumonia could be prevented, while further research found reducing the number of deaths from the inflammatory condition of the lung is a key to improving survival of children living in the Pacific.

“Although a vaccine has been available for about 18 years to prevent many of these pneumococcal deaths, few countries in the Asia-Pacific region are using it – often because pneumococcus is hidden, a silent killer,” Prof Russell said.

It ensures that a partnership between a prominent humanitarian and developmental aid for children fund and a service organisation to deliver into the Pacific will prove invaluable.

Meanwhile, rotaviruses are known to be the most prominent cause of severe diarrhoea that can lead to dehydration in children, that left untreated can be life-threatening.

The commonly contagious virus amongst babies and preschool children causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines.

However, a 2020 study from Prof Russell, who led an Asia-Pacific Health Research group, also found that vaccinations against rotavirus led to a “significant decrease” of deaths in children from severe diarrhoea on Kiribati.

Research found that despite a high rate of malnutrition, there is evidence that rotavirus vaccination is effective against a backdrop of poor sanitation and inadequate low-temperature storage chains.

The possibility of access to vaccines across the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu has come about from UNICEF and Rotary Australia and New Zealand.

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The generosity of the multi-million-dollar partnership that will also include a human papillomavirus vaccine to protect adolescent females in the fight against cervical cancer could stretch the project’s reach of the medical treatment out to 100,000 throughout the Pacific islands.

Rotary Australia and New Zealand have already worked closely with UNICEF and others in the Pacific to successfully drive their worldwide polio eradication campaign.

“We are so delighted that the implementation of Rotary Give Every Child A Future is underway after years of planning and preparation,” Rotary project director James Allen said in a statement.

“It is a vital public health initiative that will have lasting and sustainable benefits for the peoples of these countries.”

The three-year partnership is also supporting updates to national immunisations to contribute to the reduction in other preventable diseases while addressing misinformation about vaccinations.

The support of Rotary Australia and New Zealand to roll out the life-saving vaccines in 2021 marks the centenary of the body in the region.

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