More than 20 years ago, Melinda and I saw a newspaper article about the major causes of childhood death. One disease in particular—rotavirus—caught our attention. The disease, which causes severe diarrhea, was killing half a million children a year…and we had never even heard of it.
In fact, no one had ever heard of it until 1973, when an Australian researcher named Ruth Bishop and her colleagues at The University of Melbourne and Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne discovered it.
At the time, Ruth had been searching for the cause behind cases of children with acute gastroenteritis, an infection marked by severe diarrhea and vomiting. It was a common illness around the world, but its impact was greatest in poor countries. When kids in wealthy nations had this condition, doctors gave them a simple rehydration solution. When kids in developing countries had it, they often died from dehydration.
Ruth suspected that some pathogen was responsible for all the illness, but no one had been able to isolate it. Using an electron microscope to examine samples from the hospital’s diarrhea patients, Ruth’s team found what they were looking for. The culprit behind this illness, she learned, was a wheel-shaped virus, earning it the name rotavirus (rota being Latin for “wheel”). Always humble, Ruth attributed her discovery to a “mixture of calculated research and serendipity.”
Rotavirus would become Ruth’s obsession. She went on to research how the virus spread and how to mount a defense against it. And she served as a key leader for the World Health Organization’s efforts to combat rotavirus and other diarrheal diseases. Her breakthrough would eventually pave the way for the development of several rotavirus vaccines and help spur the creation of Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, which has helped to deliver these and other lifesaving vaccines to the world’s poorest countries. Before the first vaccine was available in 2006, more than 500,000 children died of rotavirus every year. By 2016, deaths from the virus had fallen to 128,500.
Still, more work needs to be done to ensure all children can have access to rotavirus vaccines.
Existing rotavirus vaccines are given to infants from six to eight weeks of age, leaving newborns at risk of infection. Thanks to the decades of research led by Ruth, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has developed a new vaccine that can be given to babies soon after birth to provide the earliest possible protection from rotavirus.
Hearing about the number of children dying from rotavirus sparked a fire in us many years ago. Thanks to Ruth’s pioneering research and laser focus, her passion for a solution to this overlooked disease became ours.
Melinda and I always had plans to do philanthropy, although much later in our lives. But after we learned about rotavirus, it seemed like there was no time to waste. We started making grants in global health, leading to the creation of our foundation in 2000. Some of our foundation’s first grants went to support the development of an oral rotavirus vaccine. At the time, millions of children in poor countries were not being immunized against deadly diseases like rotavirus. One of our foundation’s largest investments has been to support Gavi’s ongoing efforts to make rotavirus vaccines and other vaccines affordable so all children, no matter how rich or poor, can have access to them.
During our current pandemic, Ruth’s life is a reminder of the importance of scientific research to uncover the unknown pathogens and the power of vaccines to prevent suffering and save lives.
Ruth is now retired, but her legacy continues both as a role model for other researchers who continue to fight against rotavirus and in the millions of children’s lives that have been saved because of her discovery.