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Rotavirus - A Common Childhood Illness

written by: Kate Henschel•edited by: dianahardin•updated: 4/20/2011

Many people have never heard of rotavirus, despite the fact that it is an incredibly common disease. Read on to find the answer to the question, "What is rotavirus?"

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    What is Rotavirus?

    Rotavirus is virus with a typical viral shape. It is comprised of eleven strands of RNA, within a three-layer icosahedral capsid. The virus is not enveloped, and it can be up to 76.5nm. There are five rotavirus species - A, B, C, D, and E. Most human cases are caused by rotavirus A, which has several different serotypes.

    The virus is spread via the fecal-oral route. This means that an infected person sheds the virus in his or her feces, and the virus then infects another person by entering through the mouth. This most commonly occurs due to contact with contaminated hands or other objects, but it can also be spread via infected food and water.

    Rotavirus most frequently causes diarrhea and vomiting, especially in small children and elderly patients. Since it is caused by a virus, antibiotics will not help treat a rotavirus infection. There is no antiviral medication to treat an infection with rotavirus. Treatment for rotavirus includes treating the dehydration that can result from the infection.

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    Rotavirus in Children

    Although rotavirus can cause illness in anyone, babies and young children are at an increased risk. Rotavirus causes gastroenteritis, which is the inflammation of the stomach and intestines. This often results in watery diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pains and a fever. Small children and babies are at risk of dehydration from the diarrhea that lasts 3-8 days. Signs of dehydration in children include thirst, restlessness, sunken eyes, dry mouth and fewer trips to the bathroom.

    In 2006, a vaccine for rotavirus was introduced in the United States. Currently, two vaccines are available: RotaTeq and Rotarix. Both vaccines are given orally and provide 85-98% protection against rotavirus infections. Prior to 2006, nearly everyone in America had been infected with rotavirus before their fifth birthday. Rotavirus accounted for 200,000 visits to the emergency room and up to 70,000 hospitalizations each year. Rotavirus is still the leading cause of diarrhea in children around the world, and it accounts for more than half a million deaths in children each year.

    Rotavirus spreads very quickly among children. The virus can be found in the stool of infected children who show symptoms, but it is also found in the feces of children who haven't yet started to show symptoms. Children are less likely to wash their hands after using the bathroom, and they're also likely to put their fingers in their mouths. Daycare centers are an especially good breeding ground for rotavirus, because they contain large groups of children sharing common objects, like toys. The best way to prevent the spread of rotavirus is to wash hands after using the restroom and after changing diapers. Disinfecting toys and surfaces used by children can also help stop the spread.

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    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Rotavirus." October 28, 2010.

    The Nemour Foundation. "Infections: Rotavirus"