Rotavirus is the most common virus that causes acute gastroenteritis, with the hallmark symptoms of severe diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and fever. This viral infection is very easily transmitted from person-to-person (especially from child-to-child) and is responsible for outbreaks mostly in winter and spring. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly a half-million children worldwide died from rotavirus infections in 2008. Most of these deaths occurred in poor, undeveloped and developing countries where sanitation, nutrition, and access to vaccines are worse than in developed ones.
But rotavirus can surely kill young children regardless of where they live. Yes, the immune system is healthier in a well-nourished child, so the better-fed stand a better chance of surviving an infection than a child who is malnourished. But the biggest difference is that almost all children in the U.S. receive one of two approved rotavirus vaccines — except, of course, those children of zealous, vaccine-refusing parents, or children with a medical contraindication that unfortunately prevents them from receiving this live vaccine. A new study confirms what we’ve already seen in daily pediatric practice: Both vaccines are extremely effective in preventing severe episodes of rotavirus infection, making universal rotavirus vaccination “a resounding success” in this country, according to Robert Preidt:
A team led by Dr. Eyal Leshem of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a big drop in the number of young children hospitalized with gastroenteritis since routine immunization against rotavirus was launched in 2006.
“Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe acute gastroenteritis — vomiting and severe diarrhea — among children across the world,” said one expert, Dr. Roya Samuels, a pediatrician at Cohen Children’s Hospital of New York in New Hyde Park.
But two vaccines — Rotateq and Rotatrix — can prevent up to 87 percent of all rotavirus illnesses occurring during a baby’s first year, said Samuels, who was not involved in the new study.
Rotavirus vaccines are given to young infants orally; there is no pain involved in their administration. And, as we see from this study, they are highly effective in preventing infections and saving lives. Indeed, the vaccine has rotavirus “on the run.”
There are three myths regarding the rotavirus vaccine that false experts promote in their opposition to immunizing children. The first says that rotavirus is a mild infection that “we all” get and survive. The second is that it’s better to get the infection “naturally” rather than from a man-made vaccine. In both cases, these false experts conclude, vaccination is not needed. The third myth is that the vaccine is dangerous and that natural infection is not.
All three myths are easily debunked by looking at the clinical experience over the last decade and comparing it to the pre-vaccine years, reflected in studies such as the one discussed above. There was a time not long ago when “we all” didn’t survive the vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration associated with rotavirus infection. There is no evidence that children in the United States are healthier and better nourished today than a generation or two ago. Saying that getting rotavirus (or any vaccine-preventable illness) is better than getting the vaccine is wishful thinking. It’s like saying, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” which is a dangerous (and false) oversimplification. Finally, peer-reviewed scientific research and the clinical experience of administering millions of doses of rotavirus vaccine over the past decade indicate that both rotavirus vaccines are safe, not dangerous.
That last myth has things backwards. We should never forget how dangerous rotavirus infection can be, and how safely and effectively it can be prevented.