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.
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 symptoms can include mild fever and stomach cramps. Rotavirus infection can lead to dehydration, which is the most common cause of hospital admission.
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.
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.
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.
Although rotavirus is not often 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
The graph below shows what has happened in the UK since the rotavirus vaccine was introduced in July 2013. In 2014, 2015 and 2016 the number of reported cases of rotavirus fell by over 70% compared to previous years. Rotavirus infections tend to peak between January and March, but in these years there was no significant peak in cases. For more information see the 2015 study showing the rapid decline in rotavirus infection from Public Health England and Imperial College London.