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Rotavirus

Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrheal disease in children worldwide and accounts for approximately one-third of the nearly 600,000 global child deaths attributable to diarrhea. Ninety-five percent of these deaths occur in developing countries. Rotavirus disease cannot be treated with antibiotics or other drugs, and most children are at risk of infection regardless of hygiene practices or access to clean water. Vaccination offers the best hope for preventing severe rotavirus illness. In 2009, the World Health Organization recommended that all countries include rotavirus vaccines in their national immunization programs. Currently, two vaccines against the disease are licensed for use and several more are in development.

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Rotavirus disease

  • Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrheal disease in children worldwide and accounts for approximately one-third of the nearly 600,000 global child deaths attributable to diarrhea. Ninety-five percent of these deaths occur in developing countries.
  • Rotavirus is found in all countries. Regardless of hygiene practices or access to clean water, nearly every child in the world is at risk of infection with rotavirus before age three.
  • In young children, rotavirus disease is characterized by diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and severe dehydration. In fatal cases, death is caused by severe dehydration due to rotavirus infection.
  • Rotavirus disease cannot be treated with antibiotics or other drugs. Rehydration therapy is an important part of treating dehydration due to diarrheal diseases, including rotavirus.
  • Vaccination offers the best hope for preventing severe rotavirus illness, particularly in settings where access to medical care is limited.

Rotavirus vaccines

  • There are two currently licensed vaccines against rotavirus: Merck’s RotaTeq® and GlaxoSmithKline’s Rotarix®. Studies of these vaccines have demonstrated their safety and efficacy among children in every region of the world. Trials in Africa and Asia found that the vaccines dramatically reduced severe disease among infants in developing countries, where the majority of rotavirus deaths occur. Results from these trials are essential to national governments as they make informed decisions about introducing rotavirus vaccines into the public sector.
  • In 2009, the World Health Organization recommended that rotavirus vaccines be included in every country’s immunization program.
  • Nearly 50 countries, mostly middle-and high-income countries, have introduced rotavirus vaccines in their national immunization programs. The GAVI Alliance, a global health partnership that works to increase access to vaccines, is supporting the introduction of rotavirus vaccines in many of the world’s poorest countries. Nearly 20 countries have introduced rotavirus vaccine with GAVI’s support.
  • Where they have been introduced, rotavirus vaccines are making a major impact—slashing hospitalizations due to rotavirus, while also reducing hospitalizations for diarrhea of any cause. Rotavirus is less prevalent among unvaccinated children, as well, suggesting herd immunity as an indirect result of rotavirus vaccine introduction.
  • While current manufacturers play an important role in meeting the global demand for the existing vaccines, additional vaccine options and manufacturers are critical to ensuring a sustainable, affordable supply. Several manufacturers are developing new rotavirus vaccines, including many in emerging countries.
  • Rotavirus vaccines are an important part of an integrated prevention and treatment strategy to control diarrheal disease. Other elements of this strategy include oral rehydration therapy; zinc treatment; exclusive breastfeeding; proper nutrition; safe water; and improved sanitation and hygiene practices.

Related diseases

Diarrheal disease is a leading cause of death in children in developing countries. In addition to rotavirus, there are many other pathogens that contribute to morbidity and mortality from diarrheal disease, including Shigella and enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC), the leading bacterial causes of diarrhea. Learn more about Shigella and ETEC.

References

Page last updated: October 2014.

Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.