Wits and Vaccines: The Impact and Potential of Vaccines for Africa

1 November 2017

Johannesburg – 01 November 2017

Wits and Vaccines: The Impact and Potential of Vaccines for Africa

The development of vaccines has greatly impacted on the reduction of mortality rates across the globe, while the importance of developing more vaccines to curb the threat of emerging diseases cannot be stressed enough. This was the overarching theme of the 16th Prestigious Lecture held by Wits University’s Faculty of Health Sciences, which was delivered by Professors Helen Rees and Shabir Madhi, at the Wits School of Public Health this week.

Both these Wits professors have made significant advances in vaccine research. According to Professor Rees, Executive Director of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI), “the history of vaccine development has seen many accomplishments with smallpox being the first to be eradicated by vaccines,” while she believes that polio transmission will soon be eradicated by vaccines.

The burden of disease on impoverished communities, the economic impact of disease outbreaks and the anguish that poor people experience under the ravage of disease, are some of the reasons which have mobilised researchers, and the private and public sectors to move quickly to fund vaccine research. However in Africa, far more can be done to increase the impact of immunisation while the Ebola virus outbreak was a classic example of why there is an urgent need to develop vaccines, Professor Rees explained. There is a growing concern that vaccines are not reaching everyone who needs them, particularly in Africa, because of reasons including limited resources for health, competing health priorities and disruption of services caused by war, displaced people and climate change, she said.

Meanwhile, Wits RHI is exploring the impact of HPV vaccines on the epidemiology of HPV and its potential impact on the prevention of a range of HPV-related cancers.

Professor Madhi discussed work done by the Respiratory and Meningeal Pathogens Research Unit (RMPRU) at Wits University over the past 21 years. “In South Africa, the introduction of pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines in 2009 is estimated to have helped reduce under-five mortality by 8% to 10%, which means that over 129 000 hospitalisations of children have been prevented.”

He explained: “Today, 40% fewer children are being admitted to hospital for pneumonia and diarrhoea because of the introduction of these live-saving vaccines into the public immunisation programmes.”

Despite the gains which have been made by vaccines, Professor Madhi said that the biggest challenge they were experiencing was the high mortality rate in babies before they turn three months. This has prompted him and his team to expand the focus of their work to include research on vaccination of pregnant women to protect the mother, foetus and new-born. The results coming from the first randomised placebo-controlled trial have shown that influenza vaccination of pregnant women results in reduced influenza rates in babies.

The Prestigious Lecture was concluded with the introduction of a flagship programme, Wits ALIVE (African Leadership in Vaccinology Research and Advocacy), which was awarded to the University in 2016 by the Department of Science and Technology/National Research Foundation to strengthen African leadership in vaccinology research and advocacy. This programme brings together accomplished Wits scientists with a broad range of expertise related to vaccines and immunisation, and aims to foster multi-disciplinary collaborations, build capacity across the region and fill critical knowledge gaps for new vaccine development and deployment.

Professors Rees and Madhi are the Co-Directors of ALIVE.

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