The strategist

The strategist

PHHP professor identifies ways to get vaccines to people most in need

By Caitlin Hartley

Richard Rheingans, Ph.D.

Introducing life-saving vaccines to developing countries in Africa is an admirable feat in itself, but for Richard Rheingans, Ph.D., it wasn’t enough. He needed to take it one step further.

Rheingans, who has spent his career observing how people interact with their environment and how it affects their well-being, aims to identify countries where simply offering vaccines is not enough. He’s working on identifying strategies that are more effective in reaching the people who need vaccines the most.

“If you want to get the most out of your health investments, you need to be thinking about different social and economic dimensions,” said Rheingans, an associate professor in the College of Public Health and Health Professions and in UF’s Center for African Studies, and also a member of the Emerging Pathogens Institute, where he focuses his time on the economics of environmental health, specifically infectious disease. “Otherwise, you easily miss the people who need it the most.”

In November, Rheingans won UF’s International Educator of the Year in the junior faculty category, which recognizes outstanding international endeavors by UF faculty members.

Currently, Rheingans is looking at the impact of the vaccine for rotavirus. Rotavirus causes about half a million deaths in children every year, according to the World Health Organization. Surprisingly, almost every child in the world is infected with rotavirus at some point, but, children in the U.S. tend to face fewer consequences; a healthy recovery is typically expected within a few days.

“If you live in India or Bangladesh, it can really be a potential killer,” Rheingans said. “It’s because kids there are more likely to be malnourished and less likely to have timely access to proper treatment.”

For this reason, vaccines have been developed and registered over the past couple of years that have a huge potential to reduce child mortality, he said.

“There’s a half million deaths every year that could potentially be eliminated,” he said.

Rheingans’ ambition to eliminate these deaths always goes back to one thing: more research. He takes data from 23 different countries while trying to understand how mortality from rotavirus is likely to be distributed across different wealth groups. How much of it lies in the poor? How much of it lies in the rich?

Rheingans hopes to shine a light on disparities and to distribute the vaccines based on the varying risk factors in different areas. There are several potential strategies to solve this problem, but they really depend on the reasons why households don’t receive vaccinations in the first place.

A lot of the problem lies with the availability and location of health services, Rheingans said. Many households don’t receive vaccinations because health services simply aren’t available. Because of this, Rheingans stresses the need for a new strategy that would strengthen current vaccine programs.

“I want to make the case that introducing a vaccine is not enough, and you need to make sure it’s reaching the right people,” he said.

“It is about making it clear that what we do now isn’t enough to help spur action, attention and advocacy. We want to get funders to reprioritize because it’s a lot easier to just introduce the vaccines, but it’s the hard work that really pays off.”