Although you may not have known what it was at the time, you've probably ended up in the doctor's office or ER thanks to the ill effects of rotavirus on your little one. The top culprit causing diarrhea in babies and young children, rotavirus infects 4 out of 5 kids in the United States with the "stomach flu" (also called "gastroenteritis") by the age of 5.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting good news, though, about the miserable infection — the 2007-2008 rotavirus season was less severe and started 3 months later (in late February rather than November) than in the past 15 years. Not only were lab results testing positive for rotavirus down almost 80%, hospitals and doctor's offices saw far fewer kids because of the infection.
The government organization says the positive changes may be because of the new rotavirus vaccine, now recommended for babies via three doses by mouth at around 2, 4, and 6 months of age.
According to the CDC, annually in the U.S. rotavirus has caused:
- more than 400,000 trips to the doctor
- up to 272,000 emergency department visits
- up to 70,000 hospital admissions
Although the infection causes only a few deaths among U.S. children each year, it causes 1,600 deaths a day among tots less than 5 years old worldwide.
About the Vaccine
You may have heard about the rotavirus vaccine and vaguely remembered some sort of controversy, but can't quite remember what it was all about. You can rest assured, though, that the immunization being given to infants now has been deemed safe and is preventing some serious illness in the youngest of kids.
In early 2007, the CDC, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) found that RotaTeq, the then-new vaccine to prevent rotavirus, does not put babies at an increased risk for intussusception (a type of serious bowel blockage), despite a previous report of a possible link.
Intussusception is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur spontaneously, most often in infants, when one portion of the bowel slides into the next. This creates a bowel obstruction that leads to swelling, inflammation, and decreased blood flow to the intestines.
Almost a decade ago (in 1999), a rotavirus vaccine called RotaShield was taken off the market after being linked to an elevated risk of intussusception. But after research showed no indication that the new vaccine, RotaTeq, increased the risk of the condition in more than 70,000 children studied, the FDA approved the new vaccine in 2006 and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) added it to the lineup of routine immunizations recommended for all infants.
What This Means to You
A rotavirus infection can make babies, toddlers, and preschoolers really sick, especially if it leads to dehydration. Signs and symptoms of rotavirus infection may include fever, nausea and vomiting, often followed by abdominal cramps as well as frequent, watery diarrhea. Call your doctor for advice if your child has signs of a rotavirus infection.
If you're caring for a child with diarrhea:
- Make sure everyone in the family (especially you and your sick child) washes hands well and often, especially after going to the bathroom or changing diapers, when caring for another child too, and before preparing and/or serving food.
- Keep your child home from childcare, playgroups, or school until the diarrhea stops.
- Watch for these signs of dehydration and call the doctor right away if any crop up:
- increased thirst
- sunken eyes
- dry mouth and tongue
- dry skin
- less urination than usual (a dry diaper for several hours in infants or fewer trips to the bathroom for older kids)
To help protect your kids against serious illnesses like rotavirus, make sure they receive their vaccinations on time, from when they're still in the crib to when you send them off to college. And immunization schedules can change over time, so schedule and keep all of your kids' routine checkups and talk to your doctor about what to expect at each visit.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: July 2008
Source: "Delayed Onset and Diminished Rotavirus Activity — United States, November 2007-May 2008," Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), June 27, 2008.