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Guard Your Baby from Rotavirus

A vaccine can protect babies from rotavirus, the most common cause of severe diarrhea in infants.

Before the rotavirus vaccine, rotavirus accounted for up to 272,000 emergency room trips (one out of 17 sick children) and up to 70,000 hospital stays a year (one out of 70 children end up in the hospital), according to the CDC.

Twenty to 60 children died of the disease each year before the introduction of the vaccine.

Very contagious

The highly contagious virus can live a long time outside the body. It can be found in the stool of an infected child before, during, and after symptoms show up. If that child skips hand-washing after using the bathroom, another child can pick up the virus. This happens when the second child touches the same objects and puts his hand to his mouth.

Rotavirus initially starts off with fever, progressing to vomiting for a couple of days. This is followed by diarrhea, which can cause dehydration.

The virus can infect children more than once. The first case tends to be the worst. After each case, kids are less and less likely to come down with a new infection.

Effective vaccines

The FDA approved the vaccine, RotaTeq, in 2006. The CDC recommends it for babies up to six months old. It's given by mouth as a liquid. Infants get three doses, at two months, four months, and six months. The vaccine is not meant for older kids.

Doctors tested RotaTeq on more than 70,000 children, according to the CDC. Half got the real vaccine and half got a placebo (inactive substance). When doctors compared the groups, this is what they found in kids who got the real vaccine:

  • 74 percent fewer cases of rotavirus associated diarrhea

  • 98 percent fewer severe cases of diarrhea

  • 96 percent fewer hospital stays due to rotavirus

In 1998, the FDA approved a different rotavirus vaccine. That vaccine was dropped after being linked to cases of intussusception, a rare, life-threatening blockage or twisting of the bowels. Studies of RotaTeq before its release, found no such problem. The FDA said in February 2007, however, that after doctors began to use RotaTeq, it received 28 reports of the bowel problem. That could be a coincidence, the FDA says, because the problem can occur on its own. So far the number of cases reported is consistent with the number of cases expected based on children who are unvaccinated.  However, the FDA has asked doctors and parents to watch for the problem.

In April 2008, a second vaccine, Rotarix, was approved by the FDA. It is given in two doses at two months and four months. Rotarix has been shown to be also effective in preventing diarrhea in infants; however, a postmarketing surveillance done in Mexico found a slight increased incidence of intussusception after the first dose. This risk, however, is significantly lower than with the previous vaccine. Without the vaccine, it's tough to avoid rotavirus because it's passed so easily.

Keep in mind

Remember, this vaccine only shields kids from rotavirus. Here's what you can do to help protect your family from other viruses:

  • Make sure your children wash their hands after using the bathroom and before eating.

  • Wash your hands after changing diapers.

  • Clean affected surfaces quickly with household chlorine bleach-based products.

  • Wash soiled clothing as soon as possible.