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Bishop anointed for life-saving work

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A medical researcher who pioneered the discovery and treatment of a deadly virus that kills hundreds of thousands of children every year has received a top science award.

Professor Ruth Bishop, who is based at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, has been awarded the CSL Florey Medal in recognition of her decades of work identifying, understanding and treating the deadly rotavirus, which is estimated to cause the deaths of around 450,000 children every year.

In 1973, Professor Bishop and her colleagues at the Royal Children’s Hospital and the University of Melbourne’s Department of Microbiology were the first in the world to discover rotavirus, an infection of the lining of the upper small intestine in young children that interferes with the body’s ability to absorb fluids, causing dehydration. Around 1200 children die from the disease every day.

Through decades of painstaking and determined research, Professor Bishop and her colleagues isolated the virus, examined how it spread and developed vaccines.

In Australia, a rotavirus vaccine was added to the National Immunisation Program for infants in mid-2007, and the number of hospitalisations caused by the infection has plunged by more than 70 per cent since.

The vaccine is now being rolled out in some of the world’s poorest countries, through the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Early results from Bolivia, the first low-income country to take part in the expanded program, show a 75 per cent drop in hospitalisations due to rotavirus infection.

A more advanced vaccine is currently being trialled in Indonesia and New Zealand.

Adrian Rollins