Rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhea among children, resulting in the death of over 500,000 children annually worldwide.

In the United States, the disease occurs most often in the winter, with annual epidemics occurring from December to June. The highest rates of illness occur among infants and young children, and most children in the United States are infected by 5 years of age. Adults can also be infected, though disease tends to be mild.

The incubation period for rotavirus disease is approximately two days. The disease is characterized by vomiting and watery diarrhea for three to eight days, and fever and abdominal pain occur frequently. Immunity after infection is incomplete, but repeat infections tend to be less severe than the original infection.

Rotavirus may be spread:

  • Through accidentally swallowing the virus picked up from surfaces contaminated with stool from an infected person, such as toys, bathroom fixtures, changing tables, and diaper pails.

  • Through ingestion of contaminated food, or contaminated water, such as the type of water found in a public swimming pool.

A rotavirus vaccine that was approved by the FDA in 1998 was pulled from the market in 1999 because of an association between the vaccine and an increased risk for intussusception (form of bowel blockage) in infants aged one year or younger. However, no direct link was established to the vaccine as a cause of intussusception.

A new rotavirus vaccine was approved by the FDA in 2006. The risk for intussusception with the new vaccine was evaluated in a large clinical trial of over 30,000 children, and no increased risk was found. The manufacturer of the vaccine will continue to closely monitor the vaccine's safety in additional clinical studies. Some, but not all, studies indicate there may be a small risk of intussusception, but the benefits outweigh the possible risks and the CDC continues to recommend routine rotovirus vaccination of infants. 

Handwashing is a very important means of preventing the spread of rotavirus. Careful and frequent handwashing can prevent the spread of infection to other people.

The CDC recommends:

  • Adults should wash their hands after using the toilet, after helping a child use the toilet, after diapering a child, and before preparing, serving, or eating food.

  • Children should wash their hands after using the toilet, after having their diapers changed (an adult should wash infant's or small child's hands), and before eating snacks or meals.

  • Toys, bathrooms, and food preparation surfaces are disinfected frequently, especially if a sick child has been in the home.

  • Use diapers with waterproof outer covers that can contain liquid stool or urine, or use plastic pants.

  • Make sure that children wear clothes over diapers.

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