ABU DHABI // Health authorities are looking at vaccinating all children against gastroenteritis in a move that could save the country millions of dirhams.
The Health Authority - Abu Dhabi (Haad) is working with hospitals to study the feasibility of including the rotavirus vaccine in the National Immunisation Programme (Nip), said Dr Mohammed Howidi, a paediatric consultant at Mafraq Hospital. The rotavirus is the most common cause of the disease.
While Haad says no decision has been made, Dr Howidi said the outlook was promising.
"I expect, although they didn't promise me, that the vaccine will be included in Nip very soon," he said.
Discussions have been going on since May, said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of communicable diseases at Haad.
The viral form of gastroenteritis is an inflammation of the upper and middle gastrointestinal tract, and is also known as stomach flu.
RotaTeq is the vaccine available in the UAE. RotaShield, which was introduced in the 1990s, was removed from the global market after it was found to cause complications that could be fatal.
RotaRix, which was introduced in 2008, was pulled from UAE shelves last year after being found to contain strains of a porcine circovirus.
While the vaccine, which can only be given to children under six months old, does not offer full protection it can greatly reduce the risk of contracting the illness, meaning fewer people needing hospital care.
"If you give the vaccine to any child, their chances of having severe gastroenteritis are reduced by almost 90 per cent," said Dr Howidi. "Their risk of having any gastroenteritis will be reduced to between 60 and 70 per cent."
In most cases the disease passes through the child without need for them to be taken to hospital. But if left untreated, the illness can lead to dehydration and organ failure.
Making the vaccine mandatory could save the UAE millions of dirhams a month, said Dr Hossam Al Tatari, the division chief of paediatric infectious diseases at Tawam Hospital, Al Ain.
Dr Al Tatari said he studied cases between October last year and March this year to see how much patients admitted to Tawam Hospital cost the Government, and the number was close to Dh2 million.
He said gastroenteritis was most commonly contracted between October and March.
But the study reveals only a part of the problem, Dr Al Tatari said.
"I'm not talking about the whole city of Al Ain," he said. "I'm talking about one hospital in one city in the UAE, and this is actually [an] underestimate because many kids came in and they were not tested.
"I am just talking about those we know had the virus, [and] the cost was Dh2m. It's huge."
Almost a third of the 36 beds in the hospital's paediatric ward are occupied by children with gastroenteritis, about the same percentage as Mafraq Hospital's paediatric ward.
The financial burden of gastroenteritis could be eased by making the vaccine compulsory, said Dr Al Tatari, who said almost everyone contracted the illness at least once before they were five.
"The problem is the cost, because these kids will be admitted to the hospital, usually staying an average of three to four days, and the parents will lose work," he said.
"This is something you could prevent very easily by giving a vaccine."