Rotavirus is the most common culprit behind severe diarrhea in children. The name originates from the Latin rota, which means “wheel”, because of the virus' similarities to a wheel under the microscope. Rotavirus is transmitted through the stool of an infected person. Children are most often affected, due to their propensity for touching the diaper area and their mouths. Also, caretakers of small children may inadvertently spread rotavirus through improper hand washing after diaper changes or wiping.
Rotavirus is a force to be reckoned with. It is highly contagious and accounts for nearly three million cases of diarrhea in the United States annually. Approximately 55,000 American children are hospitalized annually with severe infections, and sadly, rotavirus claims the lives of nearly 600,000 children worldwide annually. The vast majority of children are exposed to rotavirus by the age of five.
The infection is characterized by diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, usually lasting from three to eight days. Rotavirus may also be accompanied by a cough, runny nose and fever. The incubation period is about two to three days. Most cases of rotavirus occur during the months from November to April, and hot spots for exposure tend to be childcare centers and children’s hospitals.
The most important thing to watch for is dehydration, which can progress quickly, especially in infants. Watch for thirst, sunken eyes and dry diapers, or fewer trips to the bathroom for potty-trained children. A severe rotavirus infection called rotavirus gastroenteritis may result in hospitalization. If the infection progresses to severe dehydration, a child will usually receive intravenous (IV) fluids at the hospital. To make a diagnosis, the doctor will conduct a blood test to rule out bacterial infection.
If your child has a mild case of rotavirus, it can be treated with extra fluids at home. Fruit juices and soda should be avoided, because they may exacerbate diarrhea. Oral rehydration solutions such as Pedialyte, administered according the directions or under the supervision of a doctor, will help rebalance the child’s fluids. Small, frequent meals help to treat nausea and diarrhea. If your child exhibits signs of dehydration, see a doctor immediately.
Since it is impossible to keep a child’s hands clean at all times, even the cleanliest of homes have a visit from rotavirus at some point. Parents must remember that proper hand washing is key in preventing the virus from spreading from child to child. RotaTeq, a new rotavirus vaccine, has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and recommended for the normal vaccine schedule for children by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When the CDC approves it officially, infants will receive the vaccine at two, four and six months of age. It is administered in liquid form by mouth.
Testing on RotaTeq has shown that the vaccine is 75% effective in preventing rotavirus infection and 98% effective in preventing severe infections. Some parents may recall a failed rotavirus vaccine that was taken off the market in 1999 due to a possible serious complication called intussusception, a serious bowel obstruction in young infants. RotaTeq has not been shown to carry this risk.