UNC researcher awarded grant for anti-diarrhea vaccine study in Nicaragua

Tuesday, October 13, 2009 — The grant was awarded to Sylvia Becker-Dreps, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of family medicine in the UNC School of Medicine, who recently completed a National Research Service Award (NRSA) Primary Care Research Fellowship at UNC.

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researcher has been awarded a four-year, $507,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center to study the effectiveness of rotavirus vaccines in the Central American nation of Nicaragua.

The grant was awarded to Sylvia Becker-Dreps, M.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor of family medicine in the UNC School of Medicine, who recently completed a National Research Service Award (NRSA) Primary Care Research Fellowship at UNC. It adds to initiatives within the UNC Center for Latino Health and the UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases’ program in Nicaragua.

“Nicaragua was one of the first developing world nations to start universal immunization of its children against rotavirus, so the lessons learned here could be important to other developing nations,” Becker-Dreps said.

Rotaviruses are the most common infectious cause of diarrhea and cause the deaths of about 527,000 children worldwide each year. “These deaths are really the tip of the iceberg- many children have repeated diarrhea episodes and end up with malnutrition, stunted growth, and even developmental delays.”

In Nicaragua, diarrhea is the leading cause of death in children between infancy and age 5. In 2006, Nicaragua implemented universal infant rotavirus immunization with the pentavalent rotavirus vaccine, which manufactured by Merck. All Nicaraguan infants receive this live, oral vaccine at the ages of 2 months, 4 months and 6 months, as do children in the United States.

Clinical trials in the U.S. and Europe have shown the vaccine to be highly effective in reducing rotavirus diarrhea, but it is not known how well the vaccine works in developing countries like Nicaragua or in preventing less severe cases of diarrhea that may never receive care in the hospital.

Becker-Dreps’ study aims to determine the effectiveness of the vaccine in the primary care setting and in the community setting in Nicaragua. In addition, researchers will perform genotyping of rotavirus-positive samples collected in the study in order to identify if shifts in rotavirus strains are occurring as a result of the immunization program.

Media contact: Tom Hughes, (919) 966-6047, tahughes@unch.unc.edu

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