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Would you buy a vaccine for a disease you'd never heard of?

June 14, 2018 by PATH

Rotavirus was an unfamiliar term to policymakers, but they knew all about the challenges of diarrheal disease. DefeatDD followed the gold rule of communications--to know your audience--and framed our initiative accordingly. Photo: PATH/Trevor Snapp.

Rotavirus was an unfamiliar term to policymakers, but they knew all about the challenges of diarrheal disease. DefeatDD followed the golden rule of communications—to know your audience—and framed our initiative accordingly. Photo: PATH/Trevor Snapp

If we can't name the problem, we can't defeat it. Enter PATH's initiative to defeat diarrheal disease.

In 2008, an affordable and effective rotavirus vaccine tailored to the needs of poor countries was close to being approved for global use by the World Health Organization (WHO). There was just one problem. Meeting after meeting with national policymakers yielded the same question: “What is rotavirus?”

Understanding that rotavirus is a dangerous form of diarrhea changed everything. It was the “aha” moment.

These decision-makers knew diarrhea was a major child health challenge in their countries and were enthusiastic about investing in a vaccine that would protect children from falling ill, especially in settings where medical care is difficult to access. At the same time, they saw the need to think bigger: to fully address the diarrhea crisis, they said, we need vaccines but also other tools, such as safe drinking water, sanitation, and hygiene.

These conversations laid the foundation for PATH’s Defeat Diarrheal Disease Initiative (DefeatDD). We discovered that to achieve one goal—generate demand for rotavirus vaccines— we needed to talk about rotavirus as part of a comprehensive approach against diarrheal disease. We knew that diarrheal disease deserved greater attention among donors and that generating momentum around defeating it would translate to increased demand for and investment in rotavirus vaccines, too.

DefeatDD opened its digital doors with a website and social media channels in 2009, the year WHO gave the new rotavirus vaccines its stamp of approval for global use. Since then, more than 90 countries have introduced rotavirus vaccines into their immunization programs. Today, DefeatDD continues to provide resources for advocates, convene disparate voices around the issue, champion an integrated approach, and create a continual drumbeat of awareness with creative campaigns that highlight the importance of investing in vaccines and other interventions against diarrheal disease.

DefeatDD's Toilet Talks Campaign.

Nothing generates awareness quite like a toilet stall photo backdrop as part of DefeatDD's Toilet Talks campaign. Photo: PATH/Hope Randall

It’s important for advocacy and awareness efforts to start at the beginning of every vaccine’s journey, rather than waiting until the vaccine arrives and policymakers lack context about why it’s an important investment. For example, DefeatDD is working to create more awareness about the burden of enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli and Shigella, the leading bacterial causes of diarrhea, which have several early-stage vaccine candidates in development. The more familiar national policymakers are with disease burden and the potential impact of vaccines, the more likely they are to introduce them when they become available. PATH’s Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access (CVIA) works on every phase of vaccine research and delivery, and advocacy tactics vary throughout depending on the stage of the process. Our communications and advocacy efforts are bolstered by other resources within CVIA, such as health economics research and cost-effectiveness studies.

“ The more familiar national policymakers are with disease burden and the potential impact of vaccines, the more likely they are to introduce them when they become available. ”

Like we always say at DefeatDD: if we can’t talk about diarrheal disease, we can’t defeat it. Rotavirus vaccines have become a public health success story, and awareness of the burden of diarrheal disease was a critical piece of the puzzle. Many other vaccines and other health solutions remain out of reach simply because they lack visibility. Visibility leads to awareness, which leads to resources.

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