The World Health Organization announced on Wednsday that it had forced a temporary shift to a one-dose strategy from the usual two in campaigns to fight a swelling number of outbreaks, due to shortage of cholera vaccines.
The UN health agency said the “strained global supply of cholera vaccines” had pushed the International Coordinating Group (ICG), which manages emergency supplies of vaccines, to suspend the two-dose regimen.
“The pivot in strategy will allow for the doses to be used in more countries, at a time of unprecedented rise in cholera outbreaks worldwide,” WHO said in a statement.
It pointed out that 29 countries had reported cholera cases so far this year, including Haiti, Syria and Malawi.
That compares with the fewer than 20 nations that reported such outbreaks in total over the previous five years.
“The global trend is moving toward more numerous, more widespread and more severe outbreaks, due to floods, droughts, conflict, population movements and other factors that limit access to clean water and raise the risk of cholera outbreaks,” it said.
Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection in the small intestine causing sometimes fatal dehydration. It is generally contracted from food or water contaminated with vibrio cholera bacteria.
WHO and other members of the ICG — the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) charity, the UN children’s agency UNICEF and the Red Cross — highlighted that a one-dose strategy for cholera vaccines had been proven to be effective in response to outbreaks.
But they warned that there was only limited evidence on the exact duration of protection, which appeared to be much lower in children especially.
With two doses, when the second dose is given within six months of the first, immunity against infection lasts for three years.
“The benefit of supplying one dose still outweighs no doses,” Wednesday’s statement said.
WHO warned that the current supply of cholera vaccines was “extremely limited.”
ICG manages a global stockpile of oral cholera vaccines, but of the 36 million doses forecast to be produced this year, 24 million have already been shipped for preventive and reactive campaigns.
And an additional eight million doses have been approved by ICG for a second round of emergency vaccination in four countries.
“As vaccine manufactures are producing at their maximum current capacity, there is no short-term solution to increase production,” the statement said.
One reason for the growing concern about the situation is that the maker of one of only two cholera vaccines for use in humanitarian emergencies, an Indian subsidiary of French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, has said it will halt production by the end of the year.
MSF said the critical global shortage of cholera vaccines had left it and other ICG members with no choice but to support the “very difficult decision of reducing the doses people will receive from two to one.”
“It is incredibly frustrating to face this situation as cholera surges in more than 20 countries, including in places already devastated by crisis like Haiti, Nigeria, and Syria,” MSF international medical coordinator Daniela Garone said.
“This last-resort decision is the way to avoid making the impossible choice of sending doses to one country over another.”