Merck unveils plan to supply Nicaragua with rotavirus drug


Sun, Sep 24, 2006 - Page 11

Drugmaker Merck & Co. will donate its new vaccine against rotavirus, a highly contagious diarrheal illness, to Nicaragua under a program that will inoculate all newborns in the Central American country for free for three years.

The program is part of a strategy by Merck, one of the few major pharmaceutical companies still making vaccines, to run demonstration projects in poor countries showing the public health benefits of vaccines as a way to increase their use in developing countries.

The US$75 million gift will provide each of three doses of Merck's RotaTeq vaccine to all of the approximately 150,000 children born in Nicaragua for the next three years. After that, New-Jersey-based Merck will provide the vaccine to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health at a dramatically reduced price, Margaret McGlynn, president of Merck's vaccines division said.

The project was announced on Friday morning at the Clinton Global Initiative, the former president's second summit aimed at getting business, political and charity leaders to provide aid on poverty, health care and other issues in developing countries.

The grant will cover training for doctors and nurses in Nicaragua, along with technical assistance on storage of the vaccine, which must be kept refrigerated, and on collecting data on vaccine effectiveness and any side effects.

"We chose Nicaragua because they have demonstrated a strong commitment to protecting the health and well-being of their population, particularly their children," and have a strong nationwide vaccination program, McGlynn said.

Rotavirus infections are transmitted by contact with feces and cause gastroenteritis, with symptoms of severe diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

"Virtually every infant ends up getting this disease," McGlynn said.

Worldwide, the virus causes about 2 million hospitalizations and 600,000 deaths each year among children younger than five. Most of the deaths occur in poor countries with higher rates of malnutrition and limited medical care. Even in tiny Nicaragua, rotavirus caused dozens of deaths and thousands of illnesses last year.

RotaTeq was launched in the US in February right after it was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. In patient studies, it prevented 74 percent of cases of gastroenteritis and 98 percent of severe cases caused by four common strains of rotavirus. Some public health officials have said that Merck should have done more of its testing in poor countries.

Merck, which is currently seeking approval to sell RotaTeq in more than 100 countries, plans to do clinical testing in Africa and Asia.

The project in Nicaragua will provide additional data on the vaccine's effectiveness and safety in developing countries.

The vaccine schedule calls for giving three doses of RotaTeq -- a liquid sprayed through a tube into the mouth rather than given by injection -- between six weeks and six months after birth.