After a lull, vaccines emerge to prevent children's diseases

Sunday, May 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

After several years of status quo, the list of diseases that can be prevented with vaccines is starting to grow again.

Vaccine push

A nationwide push to get all children vaccinated by age 2 has been producing results, public health officials say.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children receive all their vaccines by age 2 for nine diseases: hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus and Haemophilus influenza type b.

In Ohio, the numbers of children who got all their shots by age 2 has climbed from about 50 percent in 1990 to about 70 percent last year.

High vaccination rates make a difference. Measles, for example, has reached its lowest level since records were kept. In Ohio, for the first time ever, no measles cases were reported in 1997.

However, an estimated 900,000 American children under age 2 still do not have all their shots.

Most local health departments provide low-cost or no-cost vaccines for needy residents. For more information about vaccines, call your family doctor or your local health department.

Last year, a chicken pox vaccine came out. This summer, a vaccine to prevent rotavirus -- the leading cause of childhood diarrhea -- could hit the market. And within two or three years, there could be a flu vaccine for kids.

"This is the golden age for vaccines," said Dr. David Bernstein, associate director of the infectious disease division at Children's Hospital Medical Center. "We are developing vaccines for diseases that never had vaccines before. And we are using new technology to develop better vaccines for older diseases."

The Gamble Program for Clinical Studies at Children's Hospital is one of five national testing centers for new vaccines, designated by the National Institutes of Health.

The center is studying at least eight promising vaccines, for rotavirus, cytomegalovirus, hepatitis B, adult influenza, childhood influenza, adult pertussis and two forms of herpes simplex virus. Among them:

Rotavirus: A product dubbed Rota-Shield, made by Philadelphia-based Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, could be licensed for widespread use as soon as this summer.

The diarrhea caused by rotavirus is a serious health threat to young children, killing 400,000 a year worldwide.

The vaccine, designed to protect against the four most common rotavirus strains, appears capable of stopping all diarrhea in about half of patients, while preventing more than 80 percent of the cases serious enough to require hospital care.

Influenza: Next month, Children's Hospital expects to publish findings about a flu vaccine for children, made by Aviron Corp. of Mountain View, Calif. A nasal spray made by using a weakened cold virus appears highly effective at preventing influenza in children. But don't call for appointments yet. The drug is at least two years away from market, Dr. Bernstein said.

Children have been getting vaccines for nine diseases: hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis, diphtheria, tetanus and Haemophilus influenza type b. The still-new chicken pox vaccine was the first to be introduced in years.

The list has begun to grow again thanks to a recent wave of advances in virology and genetic research, Dr. Bernstein said. Meanwhile, the hunt for easier ways to administer vaccines continues.

Looking for anything less imposing than injections, researchers are testing oral liquids, nasal sprays and skin patches. Some highly-experimental concepts involve adapting bananas or potatoes to carry vaccines, much like vitamin-fortified breakfast cereal.

"Maybe someday an apple a day really will keep the doctor away," Dr. Bernstein said.

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