ABU DHABI // Babies are to receive free vaccinations against a potentially fatal virus that causes gastroenteritis.
The rotavirus vaccine has been introduced to the Health Authority Abu Dhabi's childhood immunisation schedule for infants younger than six months to help ease the financial burden of hospital admissions.
"Today we are introducing a new milestone in the child immunisation schedule," said Dr Farida Al Hosani, the manager of communicable diseases at the health authority.
The rotavirus causes diarrhoea, vomiting, severe dehydration, fever and organ failure, and is the most common cause of gastroenteritis - an inflammation of the upper and middle gastrointestinal tract.
More than 500,000 children worldwide die each year because of the illness, according to the World Health Organisation. It is transmitted through hand-to-mouth contact with contaminated surfaces.
Dr Al Hosani said the immunisations would greatly reduce the risk of children contracting the disease and cut the number of hospital admissions. This would lead to financial savings for the health system.
A study at one hospital in the UAE found that 50 per cent of gastroenteritis admissions were because of the rotavirus.
"By introducing this vaccine we are aiming to eliminate or prevent the infection of rotavirus and reduce the admissions to the hospital," Dr Al Hosani said.
"When you compare the cost of the vaccine versus the consequences of the viral infection you will see there is a lot of savings."
Dr Hossam Al Tatari, the division chief of paediatric infectious diseases at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, said that the move could save millions of dirhams in medical costs.
"The vaccine has been shown worldwide to be very cost effective," he said. "There is direct savings by significantly decreasing doctors' visits and hospital admissions because of gastroenteritis.
"There is also substantial indirect savings if we consider the number of days that parents take off to take care of sick loved ones.
"The vaccine has been included in the immunisation schedules of numerous countries since 2008 and has proven to be very effective in decreasing the severe form of rotavirus gastroenteritis. Its efficacy is estimated to be about 80 per cent."
From today, educational material will be distributed to all pregnant women across Abu Dhabi urging mothers-to-be to ensure their children are vaccinated by the age of six months.
The rotavirus vaccine is usually made available in two doses. The first is recommended when a baby reaches two months, and no later than 14 weeks and six days. The second is given at four months old.
Depending on the brand, a third dose is sometimes recommended at six months. The vaccine will not be available for children older than six months.
"We ask parents to commit to this vaccine, especially in the early months," Dr Al Hosani said.
"If your child exceeds the period of six months they will be deprived of having this vaccine."
The vaccine, which is taken orally, is free of charge for all Abu Dhabi residents - both Emiratis and expatriates - at all Seha-run hospitals and clinics.
Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, director of public health and research at the health authority, said Abu Dhabi was the first emirate to introduce the rotavirus into its immunisation schedule, but other emirates were looking at the feasibility of including it into their programmes.
The best ways to prevent the infection is to use alcohol-based disinfectants to clean surfaces children come into contact with, as well as to ensure hygiene, Dr Al Hajeri said.
The virus is most commonly contracted in April, May and June, according to the health authority.