From today, an immunisation against a new infectious disease has been introduced. Unlike tetanus, it rarely kills - if it did, virtually no child in the UK would ever reach adulthood. The disease is rotavirus, and virtually every child in the UK catches it at least once before they're five. It's the most common cause of gastroenteritis among young children the UK, causing vomiting, stomach cramps and profuse diarrhoea lasting for three to eight days.
Globally, rotavirus is a killer - every year it's estimated that there are 111 million episodes in children, two million children are hospitalised and 611,000 die from it. Fortunately in the UK, where the malnutrition that makes infectious diseases more deadly is rare, death rates from rotavirus are low. But rotavirus infection is still responsible for about 18,000 hospital admissions every year in England and Wales, not to mention misery for tens of thousands of children and worry and time off work for their parents.
Most parents never know their child has rotavirus - there is no point in sending samples to the laboratory to check for the cause of an infection if it won't change the treatment. But they certainly know they're poorly - vomiting and diarrhoea are frequent and profuse. As with most viral infections, we can't 'cure' rotavirus, and treatment consists of lots of support and fluids to avoid the most serious complication, dehydration.
Regular handwashing and keeping surfaces clean can reduce the spread of rotavirus, but it's remarkably resistant even to standard cleaning products. It's passed not just by direct hand-to-mouth contact (and children are very good at that!) but also from touching contaminated surfaces like toys. It can also be spread by sneezing or coughing, so spreads through nurseries and primary schools like wildfire.
Some parents may be concerned at giving their child 'yet another' vaccine, exposing their immune system to another virus at a young age. But it's important to remember that all babies are exposed to thousands of germs every day. We live surrounded by germs, and babies touch other objects and put their hands in their mouths all the time. The rotavirus vaccine is a weakened form of the virus, given by mouth rather than an injection at two and three months of age. This means it can't multiply in the body but the immune system still recognises it as 'the real thing'. This allows their bodies to recognise the enemy and build up immunity to it, so that when they do swallow 'the real thing' (which they inevitably will, within a couple of years if not months) the body is primed to fight it off.
Because rotavirus vaccine is a 'live' vaccine, it's important to wash your hands regularly after changing nappies for a couple of weeks after your child is immunised, to reduce the risk of passing the virus on. But interestingly, passing on the weakened virus would also protect other family members from the full-blown infection. As a mother who has caught rotavirus from her child, I can tell you with absolute certainty that if the vaccine had been available when my kids were babies, I'd have been first in the queue to have it!
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