Hepatitis E has an incidence of 20 million people per year and has caused 70,000 deaths thus far. Unsurprisingly China will be the first country to protect its people and offer a vaccine against this nasty virus. Hepatitis E is mainly a waterborne disease associated with regions of poor sanitation and personal hygiene. It is especially prevalent in Asian countries. While this virus often causes mild disease in most people, serious cases can develop especially in pregnant women. In fact the mortality rate in infected pregnant mothers is extremely high. There has been no specific treatment for this disease for several years, and in the coming months China will have administered the vaccine to thousands of it’s citizens.
The new vaccine was approved by the China’s State Food and Drug Administration in December of 2011. Researchers at Xiamen University discovered that when injected into the human body, a modified strain of E. coli will produce a specific protein that triggers the body’s immune response against hepatitis E virus. The research a behind this vaccine has been in the works since 2000, and it was only recently that the vaccine was approved. The vaccine was developed with the joint partnership and funding from the Yangshengtang group and the university. The licensee for the vaccine called Hecolin came after a phase III trials showed that it was very effective at preventing infection in healthy individuals. Although it took an exceptional amount of funding by the company and by the Chinese government, the National Institute of Diagnostics and Vaccine Development in Infectious Diseases wants the world to see how partnership and collaboration between the private and the public sector can help find solutions to diseases that mainly affect the developing world, while also being profitable and rewarding.
This vaccine might have come at a time when it is greatly needed. In 2007 there was a hepatitis E outbreak in Uganda infecting over 10,000 people and killing 160. By the end of September Kenya expects to report over 200 cases of hepatitis E in refugee camps. Health surveillance in South Sudan is also showing similar outbreaks. While China is the only country to have licensed this vaccine, the success stories coming from China as well as additional follow-up research conducted by other countries suggests that this vaccine might be available to everyone in the coming years.
- Nalani Wakinekona