Rotavirus gets its name from the fact that, under a microscope, the virus resembles a wheel. And you could say, like you might say about a wheel, rotavirus goes round and round. This nasty, potentially lethal bug causes severe acute gastroenteritis with diarrhea and vomiting primarily in infants and young children. Fortunately, there are two safe rotavirus vaccines that can protect children from this disease.
Prior to the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine, rotavirus infection was responsible for 200,000 emergency room visits, 55,000 hospitalizations, and 60 to 65 deaths each year in the U.S. Worldwide, it is the leading cause of severe diarrhea among young children, leading to 2 million hospitalizations and more than 500,000 deaths of children aged 5 and under annually. Older children and adults can also be infected with the virus, but the illness is generally milder.
Rotavirus disease is highly contagious. The germ is present in the stool of an infected person and can remain viable for a long time on contaminated surfaces, including people's hands. Children catch it by touching something that's contaminated and then putting their hands in their mouth. The spread of rotavirus infection is a particular problem in hospitals and in day care settings, where it can be easily spread from child to child. It's also easily spread by day care workers, especially when they change diapers without washing their hands afterward.
Symptoms of rotavirus infection, which may last up to eight days, include fever, nausea, abdominal cramps, and frequent, watery diarrhea. If it's severe enough, the diarrhea can cause dehydration, and it's the dehydration that's responsible for the hospitalizations and deaths associated with this disease.
How Is the Rotavirus Vaccine Given?
There are two brands of the rotavirus vaccine -- RotaTeq (RV5) and Rotarix (RV1). Both vaccines are given orally, not as a shot. The only difference is the number of doses that need to be given.
With RotaTeq, three doses are required. They should be given at ages 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months. Rotarix only requires two doses -- at 2 months and 4 months.
The vaccine may be given at the same time as other vaccines, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that the rotavirus vaccine be included as part of the routine immunizations given to infants.
How Effective Is the Rotavirus Vaccine?
Studies of the rotavirus vaccine have shown that it can prevent about 74% of rotavirus infections. More importantly, it can prevent approximately 98% of severe infections and 96% of hospitalizations from rotavirus. In one Massachusetts hospital, in two years, the number of people with rotavirus dropped from 65 to three.
Is the Rotavirus Vaccine Safe?
Before being approved, the rotavirus vaccine was tested on more than 70,000 children and found to be safe. However, an earlier vaccine, called RotaShield, was removed from the market after being used for two years because it was found to increase the risk of intussusception -- a condition in which the small bowel folds back inside another part of the intestine, causing a bowel obstruction.
The RotaTeq vaccine does not appear to increase this risk and is considered safe.