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Nasty Infectious Diseases You Want To Avoid - Rotavirus

Updated on December 31, 2008


Rotavirus is the common name for a family of viruses that shave several features. The group A rotaviruses are the most common cause of severe diarrhea in children. This virus strikes 130 million people every year, causing diarrhea so severe that 870,000 children die each year worldwide. While few U.S. children die, the disease still sends 50,000 of them to the hospital every year. If an infant or toddler develops diarrhea in the winter, there is a good chance that a rotavirus is the culprit. By age four, most people have been infected and developed antibodies. While the disease is not particularly deadly in the United States among children with healthy immune systems, rotavirus in the developing world is more serious because many infants are malnourished. In the United States, the chance a child will be hospitalized with rotavirus is 1 in 40. One in every 800 hospitalized will die. The rotavirus season begins in late fall and ends in the spring.


Cause - Rotavirus invades the cells of the small bowel so that it can't absorb liquids, resulting in diarrhea. While the rotavirus also infects animals, scientists don't believe it is passed from pets to humans; the virus is thought to be spread by the fecal-oral route. The virus must be swallowed in order for it to infect the digestive tract. Children infected once can be infected again.


Symptoms - Symptoms develop quickly; most babies begin with vomiting and a low fever followed by watery diarrhea from three to eight days. The child is infectious until the diarrhea stops. As many as 20 vomiting and 20 diarrhea episodes a day are not uncommon.


Diagnosis - Physicians can diagnose rotavirus from symptoms alone, noting the age of the child and time of year. The currently standard protocol for surveillance of rotavirus in a hospital environment requires testing stool for rotavirus using a commercial enzyme immunoassay kit which has been proven to be the most labor and cost-effective way to identify the virus. Without such positive and clear identification of the rotavirus, it is extremely difficult to determine which of many possible pathogens may be the cause of the severe diarrhea.


Treatment - There is no cure for rotavirus infection. Nonprescription antidiarrhea medicine should not be given to infants and young children. Infants with severe dehydration and vomiting require IV-fluid replacement.


Prevention - The use of rotavirus vaccines in the developed world has reduced hospitalizations by 80 percent and may have prevented illness in unvaccinated children by restricting the number of infections which circulate in the general population. Before rotavirus vaccines were approved for use in the United States two years ago, rotavirus was the cause for 200,000 emergency room visits and over 55,000 hospitalizations in the country each year. Worldwide, rotavirus is the cause for well over 2 million hospitalizations and more than half a million deaths every year in children aged under six years. The vast majority of rotavirus deaths occur in the poorest Third World countries, as children in the poorest countries account for 85% of all global rotavirus deaths. The considerable successful impact of rotavirus vaccines in North America and Europe is a strong signal of its significant potential in saving lives around the world.


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