A $2.2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to the University of Vermont aims to help a team of scientists there try to slow down a disease killing over 450,000 children per year.
"Diarrhea is one of the top five killers of children under the age of two globally. Rotavirus, as it turns out, is the top cause in diarrheal death," said Ross Colgate, research analyst.
Many Americans have never heard of rotavirus. That's because most babies in the U.S. are given a vaccine for the disease and it works 95 percent of the time. But for children in developing countries, the oral rotavirus vaccine works less than half the time. Researchers at UVM's vaccine testing center want to know why.
"The immune system, although it's extremely powerful, may reach a critical limit," said Sean Diehl, an assistant professor of medicine at UVM.
"What's happening with the child? Is it malnutrition? Could it be maternal breast milk? Maternal antibodies? Other infections?" asked Colgate.
Colgate spent years in Bangladesh studying why the rotavirus vaccine did not work on many children there. Some children, often living in unsanitary conditions, got rotavirus within the first six weeks of life.
"When children are encountering because of poor sanitary conditions multiple infections at the same time, it could be that the immune system is diverted," said Diehl.
Immunologist Sean Diehl hypothesized the immune system may reach a critical limit as it fights off other bacteria and disease. He says the $2.2 million grant will help his team find out if changing the dose or introducing an additive would save lives.
"The grant provides a great opportunity to look deeper into the immune response," said Diehl.
The research will take over two years. There's no cure for a child with rotavirus diarrhea, just supportive therapy.
"The thing that actually kills them is dehydration generally," said Colgate.
These scientists race to make what works in America and developed countries work for children born into poverty across the globe.
Diehl says some scientists are working on a rotavirus vaccine that would be given in a muscle instead of orally, but evidence is inconclusive regarding if that would work for an intestinal disease.
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