Rotavirus is a now vaccine-preventable disease that can cause vomiting and diarrhea in young children.
While rotavirus isn’t the only cause of diarrhea in children, it was once the most common cause of severe diarrhea in young children.
Norovirus, several bacteria (Salmonella and Shigella), parasites, and other organisms still cause gastroenteritis (stomach flu) in children, but we don’t see rotavirus as much anymore. The National Respiratory and Enteric Virus Surveillance System (NREVSS) now reports low levels of rotavirus infection each year, with only about 5% of rotavirus tests now being positive during the peak of rotavirus season vs over 25% in the pre-vaccine era.
Children can develop symptoms of rotavirus symptoms about 1 to 3 days after being exposed to someone else who is sick with a rotavirus infections (the incubation period). These symptoms could include vomiting, watery diarrhea (without blood or mucus), fever, and abdominal pain. Although the fever and vomiting typically only last a few days, the diarrhea can often last at least 3 to 8 days or longer.
A rapid antigen stool test is available to test for rotavirus, but the diagnosis a typically made clinically, which means without testing and based on your child’s symptoms, especially if rotavirus infections are going around in your community.
Of course getting diagnosed with rotavirus is much less likely these days, now that we have a safe and effective vaccine.
While rotavirus was once the most common cause of severe diarrhea in children, leading to about 3 million cases of diarrhea, 55,000 hospitalizations, and 20 to 40 deaths in the United States each year, that has been greatly reduced in the post-vaccine era.
During the 2007-2008 rotavirus season, rotavirus activity decreased by more than 50% as compared to the 15 previous rotavirus seasons from 1991 to 2006. And during the 2010 to 2012 seasons, “the number of positive rotavirus tests declined 74%-90% compared with the pre-vaccine baseline and the total number of tests performed annually declined 28%-36%.”
The first rotavirus vaccine, Rotashield was quickly taken off the market in 1999 after it was found to be associated with an increased risk of intussusception, a type of bowel obstruction.
Newer rotavirus vaccines include:
- RotaTeq – approved in 2006 and given to infants as a 3 dose vaccine series, it provides protection against five common strains of rotavirus, including serotypes G1, G2, G3, G4 and P1
- Rotarix – approved in 2008 and given to infants as a 2 dose vaccine series, it provides protection against the most strain of rotavirus that most commonly gets kids sick
Both are live vaccines that are given orally and are thought to provide protection for at least two to three rotavirus seasons.
How good is that protection?
Completing either series of vaccines has been found to provide up to 98% protection against severe rotavirus gastroenteritis and up to 87% against any rotavirus gastroenteritis.
Infants should not get a rotavirus vaccine if they have had a severe allergic to a previous dose of the vaccine, to latex, if they have a history of intussusception, or if they have severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID).
They can usually get the rotavirus vaccine if they simply have some chronic stomach issues, like acid reflux or a milk intolerance, or if someone in the house has a problem with their immune system (just wash your hands after diaper changes). An immune system problem that is not SCID, an episode of acute, moderate or severe gastroenteritis, or other acute illness would be considered precautions to getting the rotavirus vaccine.
What To Know About Rotavirus
Rotavirus is a life-threatening disease that was once very common in childhood but can now be easily prevented with either the RotaTeq or Rotarix vaccines.
American Academy of Pediatrics. Rotavirus infections. In:Pickering LK, Baker CJ, Long SS, eds. RedBook: 2015 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases. 30th ed. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015
Gershon: Krugman’s Infectious Diseases of Children, 11th ed.
Live attenuated human rotavirus vaccine, Rotarix. Bernstein DI – Semin Pediatr Infect Dis – 01-OCT-2006; 17(4): 188-94.
Outbreaks of Acute Gastroenteritis Transmitted by Person-to-Person Contact, Environmental Contamination, and Unknown Modes of Transmission — United States, 2009–2013. MMWR. December 11, 2015 / 64(SS12);1-16
Tate JE et al. Trends in national rotavirus activity before and after introduction of rotavirus vaccine into the national immunization program in the United States, 2000 to 2012. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2013;32(7):741-744.