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Researchers offer cheap holiday for diarrhea vaccine trial participants

Finnish tourists looking for an affordable summer trip can now contact researchers looking for volunteers to spend two weeks in Benin. There's just one catch—half the travellers will be given an experimental vaccine against a strand of e.coli, and half will be given a placebo. The research aims to test the vaccine, which could help save young children in developing countries from the life-threatening disease.

Pieni lapsi makaa tiputuksessa.
Diarrhea kills thousands of children every year, but a new vaccine might help fight it. Image: Abir Abdullah / EPA

A project involving researchers from Helsinki University, Johns Hopkins University and Gothenburg University is aiming to show the effectiveness of a diarrhea vaccine by testing it on groups of Finnish tourists heading to Benin for two weeks at a time. 

The tourists will pay 1,600 euros for a two week programme of cultural activities and beach-based fun on the Benin coast—but half will be given the trial vaccine, and half will have a placebo.

The vaccine has been developed to combat ETEC, a type of E. Coli, one of the four most lethal strains of diarrhea around. If successful it could help save tens of thousands of young children every year. The Etvax vaccine has been developed by researchers at Gothenburg University and the Scandinavian Biopharma pharmaceutical company, and they're hopeful it will prove useful in the fight against diarrhea.

Promising vaccine

"This vaccine against ETEC has been developed over several stages, and this version has done very well in lab tests," said Helsinki University professor Anu Kantele.

Anu Kantele
Professori Anu Kantele Image: Anniina Wallius / Yle

The World Health Organisation has designated the vaccine a 'candidate', which brings with it extra funding and publicity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is channelling resources into the project via the PATH organisation, which aims to improve healthcare worldwide, especially for women and children in developing countries. New vaccines are a key goal of the PATH organisation.

Kantele emphasises that although the vaccine might provide a more comfortable experience to travellers from western countries, the main goal is to save the lives of thousands of children in developing countries who die of preventable diarrhea every year.

Organisers are aiming to recruit 800 travellers, who will head out in groups of thirty at a time to spend a fortnight in Grand Popo, which also hosts the Finnish-African cultural centre Ville Karo.

Not much tourism

The centre will arrange the trip and an accompanying programme of cultural events. The only requirements are that travellers are aged between 18 and 65, are healthy, and complete a short questionnaire before they travel. 

Curiosity about new cultures is a good asset as the trip will not be your average package holiday, according to Kantele.

"We're going to an area of West Africa where there isn't much tourism," notes Kantele. "It's not any kind of luxury holiday, but a chance to get to see Africa off the beaten track. The costs will be less than half what an equivalent package holiday might set you back."

Lonely Planet argues that Benin is an under-appreciated holiday destination.

"In fact, Benin is wonderfully tourist friendly," writes the guide book franchise. "There are good roads, a wide range of accommodation options and ecotourism initiatives that offer the chance to delve into Beninese life. Now is an ideal time to go: the country sits on the cusp of discovery."

Benin was chosen as the destination largely thanks to Ville Karo, which will serve as a suitable co-operation partner. Researchers have even constructed their own laboratory to process the samples produced when participants get sick.

If all goes well, Kantele estimates that the vaccine could be available to consumers within a decade.

Interested travellers can find out more about the project here.

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