Rotavirus infection is a serious disease that usually affects young children. Over the course of the infection, which typically lasts a week, children experience severe vomiting and diarrhea, and become highly susceptible to dehydration due to these symptoms. In Canada, children often make a full recovery during hospitalization, but for many children across the world, this illness can be fatal. The World Health Organization estimates that 453,000 children under the age of five lost their lives to the virus in 2008.1 Infection in adults is rare, as most people develop immunity during childhood.
Rotavirus affects the body by damaging cells in the small intestine, causing gastroenteritis, which is a medical condition that occurs whenever you experience inflammation in the stomach and intestine. Viruses, bacteria, or parasites typically cause acute gastroenteritis. Having a stomach bug, which many people incorrectly call the stomach ‘flu’, is a common example of acute gastroenteritis.
The vaccines for rotavirus are newcomers to the market, with the first rotavirus vaccine, RotaTeq®, released in 2006, followed by Rotarix® in 2008.
A recent study2 from the United States compared how often children were hospitalized for rotavirus infection before the vaccine became available, to hospital admission rates after the vaccine became routine. They looked at hospitalization rates from 2000-2012, which is six years before to six years after the release of the first rotavirus vaccine. By 2012, the number of hospitalizations in children younger than five years of age related to rotavirus had dropped drastically, by 94%.
Since screening for rotavirus wasn’t mandatory in children with gastroenteritis before they implemented routine rotavirus vaccinations, the researchers also looked for any changes in the rate of hospitalizations for acute gastroenteritis in children younger than five. They found that the total number of gastroenteritis hospitalizations were down 55% from pre-vaccine rates by 2012, which could mean that there were a greater number of children infected with the virus before the vaccine than we were aware of in the past.
Rotavirus infection is a very serious, sometimes fatal, disease and it is important that infants receive the appropriate vaccination before exposure to the virus. While some people worry about the safety of vaccines, the greatest threat is from the diseases that vaccines prevent. Making sure that you and your children receive appropriate vaccinations can save your own lives and, through herd immunity, the lives of people who can’t receive vaccinations, such as younger infants and individuals with compromised immune systems.