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 rotavirus vaccines that can protect children from this disease.
How Big a Problem Is Rotavirus Infection?
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 ages 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, vomiting, 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?
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 slightly 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 and Rotarix vaccines now in use do not appear to increase this risk and are considered safe.
Are There Some Children Who Shouldn't Have the Rotavirus Vaccine?
Any child who has had a severe allergic reaction to an earlier dose of the rotavirus vaccine should not be given any more doses of the vaccine. If your baby has a moderate or severe illness at the time the vaccination is scheduled, wait until the baby has recovered before being vaccinated. Also, the CDC recommends that you check with your doctor if your baby's immune system has been weakened. Things that could compromise the immune system include:
- Exposure to HIV/AIDS or any other disease that involves the immune system
- Treatment with long-term steroids
- Cancer or cancer treatment with X-rays or drugs
What Are the Side Effects of the Rotavirus Vaccine?
However, with the rotavirus vaccine, the risk of a serious reaction is extremely small.
Most children who get the vaccine have no problem at all. However, there is a slight chance your child may have temporary, mild effects following the vaccine including:
- Increased irritability