Rotavirus is the leading cause of acute gastroenteritis in infants and young children around the world. In industrialised countries, the resulting severe dehydration requires hospitalisation and even intensive care treatment especially in the very young. In less developed countries, in the absence of such medical support, the disease is often fatal.
The virus infects virtually every child within the first five years of life, regardless of socioeconomic status or geography, typically in winter (winter diarrhoea). The group at greatest risk of severe rotavirus disease is children aged 6-24 months.
Symptoms usually start with a fever, followed by three to eight days of watery diarrhoea and vomiting, sometimes accompanied by abdominal pain and often leading to severe dehydration. Each year rotavirus is estimated to cause 2 million hospitalisations worldwide and is up to three times more likely to result in hospitalisation than gastroenteritis from other causes.
According to WHO estimates, more than 10,000 children under five die each year in the WHO European region and some 453,000 worldwide due to rotavirus infection. This infection plays a considerable role in countries where diarrhoeal illness causes significant mortality. In countries where diarrhoeal disease mortality is low, rotavirus infections are still common and carry substantial associated health care and societal costs.
Is it preventable?
Yes. Rotavirus can be prevented by vaccination that is given orally.
WHO Europe is working with Member States to accelerate the introduction of rotavirus vaccine into their national immunisation programmes, and to establish a regional surveillance network to collect local data on disease burden and monitor the impact of vaccination.
Some European countries have already introduced rotavirus vaccination into their national immunisation programmes. These include Belgium, Austria, Finland, Norway, Ireland, Greece and some states in Germany.
Other measures which can limit the spread of the disease include breastfeeding, regular disinfecting of children’s play areas and toys, frequent hand washing and rigorous hygiene practices in hospital wards.
However, the infection rates for rotavirus gastroenteritis are similar in both developed and undeveloped countries, suggesting that improvements in sanitation, hygiene and water quality are insufficient to control the spread of the disease.