Rotavirus is a member of the Reovirus family of viruses. Infections caused by rotavirus are the leading cause of severe diarrhea in children worldwide (see data at the US Centers for Disease Control). Besides a severe watery diarrhea, the Illness can also include fever, abdominal pain and vomiting. Rotavirus infection is very contagious and can spread quickly from an infected child to other children and adults.
How is Rotavirus Contracted?
Rotavirus is relatively stable in the environment (once outside the body). Its stability means that contact with contaminated surfaces can lead to infection as can the consumption of food or water contaminated by fecal material. Almost every child in the United States will have been infected with rotavirus by the time he is 5 years of age.
How is Rotavirus Detected?
Samples of diarrheal specimens can be assayed for the presence of the virus by directly testing for the presence of viral antigens using an antibody based rapid diagnostic test.
How is Rotavirus Infection Treated?
For children with normal immune system function, rotavirus associated diarrheal illness is usually self controlled. The illness typically lasts from 3 to 7 days without complication. However, in some cases the diarrhea can be severe enough that dehydration becomes a problem, leading to hospitalization. In these cases, rehydration therapy with intravenous fluids is the typical treatment.
Can Rotavirus Infections Be Prevented?
As is the case for many virally caused illnesses, practicing good sanitation and personal hygiene can only help to prevent the spread of rotavirus. Regular hand washing and appropriate handling of food and food containers can assist in preventing rotavirus infection. And don’t forget children’s hands should also be washed. Unfortunately, virus can be shed from an infected child before symptoms develop so practicing good sanitary precautions routinely is important. However, improved levels of sanitation have not appreciably decreased the incidence of rotavirus infection. New oral vaccines against rotavirus have been developed in the past several years and have shown very good protection without the side effects associated with the vaccine that was used 10 or more years ago.
In the developing world, infection and illness caused by rotavirus leads to the death of more than 600,000 children per year. For most of these cases, a lack of access to supportive medical care and difficulties with sanitation are likely the major causes for these numbers.
Remember, for any questions relating to medical care or treatment for illness always speak with your family physician or with your child’s pediatrician.