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Children's Vaccines Health Center

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Rotavirus Vaccine Linked to Bowel Disorder

CDC: Benefits of Vaccination Still Far Exceed Risks
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

June 15, 2011 -- A vaccine that prevents the most common cause of severe diarrhea and dehydration in babies was associated with a potentially life-threatening bowel disorder in a large study from Mexico and Brazil, but the risk was small.

Investigators with the CDC and health agencies in Latin America concluded that between 1 in 51,000 and 1 in 68,000 vaccinated babies given the rotavirus vaccine Rotarix, manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, could be expected to develop intussusception, a condition in which part of the intestine slides into another part of the intestine, like parts of a telescope.

Another rotavirus vaccine, Wyeth Lab’s RotaShield, was withdrawn from the market in the U.S. in 1999 less than a year after its introduction. At the time, the FDA determined that the vaccine caused intussusception in 1 in 10,000 babies who got it.

Bowel Risk Not Limited to RotaShield

The new study confirms that the bowel obstruction risk was not limited to the withdrawn vaccine, but it also makes it clear that the benefits of vaccination far exceed the risks, epidemiologist Umesh D. Parashar, MD, of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, tells WebMD.

According to health surveillance data from Mexico and Brazil, about 80,000 hospitalizations and 1,300 deaths are prevented in the two countries every year by vaccinating babies against rotavirus.

If the rotavirus vaccine-associated risk in the United States is the same as in Latin America, Parashar says vaccination is probably responsible for 50 to 60 cases of intussusception each year nationwide, while preventing 40,000 to 50,000 rotavirus-related hospitalizations.

“The risk with the vaccines we have now appears to be five to 10 times lower than that seen with RotaShield,” he says. “And the benefits far outweigh the risks both in the United States and elsewhere.”

Rotavirus is responsible for more than 500,000 deaths each year, primarily in underdeveloped countries, but it is also a significant cause of childhood illness in more affluent nations.

Before the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine, as many as 70,000 rotavirus hospitalizations and about 60 deaths were reported in the U.S. each year.

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