Key disease facts

Rotavirus is the most common cause of serious diarrhoea and vomiting in young children. It is highly infectious and can cause death through severe dehydration. Before a vaccine was developed, it affected almost every child in the world by the age of 5. In the UK, where there is good medical care, very few children have died from rotavirus infection, although before a vaccine was introduced around 12,700 children a year were admitted to hospital. Rotavirus was the most frequent cause of hospital admission for children with diarrhoea in the UK. However, in the developing world children are much more at risk. The World Health Organization estimates that rotavirus infections caused between 475,000 and 580,000 deaths worldwide in 2004, mainly in developing countries.

In the short film below, Dr Andrew Prendergast talks about rotavirus infection and why it is important to vaccinate against the disease.

What are the symptoms?

Rotavirus is a very common virus that causes severe watery diarrhoea and vomiting (gastroenteritis) for 3-8 days. Vomiting is often the first symptom. Other possible symptoms include mild fever and stomach cramps. Rotavirus infection can lead to dehydration, which is the most common cause of hospital admission.

How is it passed on?

It is usually spread from one person to another through faeces, which can contaminate poorly washed hands and surfaces. Occasionally it can be passed on through droplets coughed or sneezed into the air.

Older children and adults can be infected without showing the usual symptoms. This can help rotavirus infections to be passed on in a community.

Rotavirus infection in the UK is seasonal. Before a vaccine was introduced there was usually a peak in cases between January and March.

What protection is available?

Since July 2013, babies in the UK have been offered a vaccine against rotavirus. Data suggests that this is already having an impact on cases of rotavirus in the UK.

Good hand washing and hygiene can sometimes help to stop the spread of the disease. However, because rotavirus is so infectious and difficult to get rid of, good hygiene by itself is often not very effective at preventing the disease altogether.

Rotavirus – one family’s story

A film about a family whose two small children were both hospitalised at the same time with rotavirus infection. Grateful thanks to PKIDs (Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases) and Shot by Shot for permission to use this film.

More information about the disease

Although rotavirus is not usually life-threatening in the UK, it caused a huge amount of illness before a vaccine was introduced in 2013. Each year in the UK:

  • 130,000 children were so unwell with rotavirus that they needed to see their GP
  • 36,000 children with rotavirus were taken to A&E
  • Around 12,700 of these were admitted to hospital, usually because of severe dehydration
  • It is thought that three or four children died each year in the UK as a result of rotavirus infection, and some people have given higher estimates
  • Death was due to severe dehydration caused by the diarrhoea and vomiting

Vaccination is expected to halve the number of cases, and reduce the number of hospital stays by 70%. Since the vaccine was introduced, there is evidence that it is having an impact on cases of rotavirus. In 2014, 2015 and 2016 the number of reported cases of rotavirus fell by over 70% in the UK. See the page on rotavirus vaccine for more information.

There are five different types of the virus, known as A, B, C, D, and E. Type A causes 90% of infections in humans. The vaccine used in the UK gives protection against type A infections.

Page last updated: 
Monday, April 10, 2017