Newborns at risk as shortage of the rotavirus vaccine is felt in various clinics

Rotavirus vaccine is supplied through Kenya Expanded Programme on Immunisation (KEPI). [File, Standard]

Kenya is facing an acute shortage of rotavirus vaccine risking a surge in diarrhea cases and deaths.

The rotavirus vaccine is supplied through Kenya Expanded Programme on Immunisation (KEPI) and is administered orally to children at six weeks and ten weeks.

But the patent of the original supplier of the vaccine came to an end last year, affecting supplies.

Kenya was expected to move to generic vaccines (a bio-similar), but is yet to do so.

The rotavirus vaccine supplies have been supported by the Global Alliance for Vaccines (GAVI) since 2007 but Kenya does not qualify because GAVI supports low-income countries and Kenya is in the low-middle-income category.

In 2009, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended the introduction of rotavirus vaccine in every country’s national immunisation programme which in Kenya, began in July 2014.

It was initially supported by GAVI, but Kenya was supposed to bear the cost at a later date.

The current shortage is hurting other childhood immunisations programmes as the vaccine is administered alongside others for polio, tuberculosis (TB), diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles.

Studies reveal that rotavirus disease is the most common cause of severe gastroenteritis in children globally, transmitted from one person to another, through faecal-oral route.

The virus is also active in the environment, and can be contracted through consumption of contaminated water, and food, that gets in contact with contaminated surfaces.

Symptoms of the viral disease include fever, vomiting, dehydration, stomach pain, and death.

In Kakamega County, for instance, the shortage has been experienced since November last year.

"That means babies born since have not been fully vaccinated and this exposes them to rotavirus disease which causes diarrhea in up to 85 per cent in babies of less than five years of age,” said Kakamega Chief Officer of Health, Dr Moraa Mose.

Dr Mose said the representatives from the national government promised to supply the vaccines during a recent meeting. "But as things stand, we are treating babies who get infected with the virus, but if we had vaccines, the number of babies with diarrheal disease would be less.”

The vaccine shortage has also been experienced in Baringo County where Mercy Mission Hospital has depleted its supplies, according to the hospital nursing officer, Emma Koech.

She said she placed an order from the county government stores but they also have not had any supplies for close to four weeks.

“Newborn children have not been receiving the rotavirus vaccine for the past one-week following an acute shortage. We only had 10 doses that have been administered and there is high demand,” said Koech. 

In Vihiga, the shortage has seen medics advising mothers to ensure their children are fully vaccinated for other childhood diseases.

“Rotavirus vaccine targets diarrhea caused by rotavirus, mostly reported in children with low immunity,” said Edith Anjere, the Vihiga Vaccines and Immunisation Coordinator.

A nurse who requested anonymity at Langalanga sub-County Hospital in Nakuru said the vaccine has been missing for one month. “As an alternative, we advise mothers during clinics to maintain high hygiene to prevent their children from contracting rotavirus,” she said.