Electron micrograph of rotaviruses. The name of the virus is taken from the Latin word for wheel, rota, because of the circular appearance of the virus under the electron microscope.
Rotavirus is a very sneaky germ. Like many viruses, it is highly contagious and is a plague in the developing world. There is no treatment, but the disease can be prevented by a safe and effective rotavirus vaccine.
How Serious is Rotavirus?
The disease kills 500,000 young children in Africa and Asia every year. Consider how staggering these this loss of life is compared with the tragic loss of over 5000 Americans in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike other diarrheal illnesses, improving sanitation does not reduce the risk or rotavirus infection. Rotavirus is a health issue in the United States also. Each year, about 600,000 infected people are seen in the U.S. by doctors and emergency rooms. There are hospitalizations and fatalities also.
Can Rotavirus be Prevented?
Vaccination is key and is about 75% effective. A broad immunization program in the third world would save hundreds of thousands of lives every year. PATH, a global health advocacy group estimates that an effective vaccination strategy could save 2.5 million people by the year 2025. Even if their data is optimistic, vaccination would still save millions of lives.
Does the Rotavirus Vaccine Really Work?
Yes. Currently, there are 2 rotavirus vaccines available that are given to infants in the United States routinely. Unfortunately, the countries that need these vaccines most desperately are not receiving them because of cost and logistical obstacles. We now have proof that rotavirus vaccines save lives. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine published 2 major studies in the January 28, 2010 issue that clearly showed that a rotavirus vaccination program in Mexico and Africa saved children. The World Health Organization now recommends that rotavirus vaccine be administered routinely throughout the world.
Should International Travelers Be Vaccinated?
International travelers are not advised to receive rotavirus vaccine, although you should be up-to-date on your routine vaccinations. However, when you meet with your travel doctor, you will discuss disease trends, including rotavirus, in your destinations. Since this virus is contagious, there are precautions you can take to reduce your risk of contracting it. There’s no cure like prevention.