Vaccinations: Rotavirus

What is rotavirus? 

Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus that causes inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract and is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and young children worldwide. In addition to watery diarrhea, rotavirus often causes fever, abdominal pain, vomiting, and severe dehydration. In rare cases, it can result in death.

Why should I vaccinate my child? 

Before the rotavirus vaccine for infants was introduced in 2006, rotavirus infected almost every child before their 5th birthday. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the pre-vaccine period, rotavirus was responsible each year for more than 400,000 doctor visits, more than 200,000 emergency room visits, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations, and 20 to 60 deaths in children under the age of 5. Worldwide, over half a million children still die from severe diarrhea caused by rotavirus each year.

The virus spreads easily and is most prevalent from December through June. While hand washing and other good hygiene habits are important, the CDC notes that they are often not enough to control the spread of the disease. In addition to contaminated hands, the virus can spread through contaminated objects (such as toys or utensils), food, and water. 

The vaccine, which is 85-98 percent effective in preventing severe diarrhea, is the surest way to protect your child from rotavirus infection. Estimates suggest that the vaccine prevents at least 40,000 to 50,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. each year.

How many doses will my child receive? 

Two rotavirus vaccines are currently used for infants in the U.S. Both vaccines are given by mouth in two or three doses depending on the brand. The vaccine can be given at the same time as other childhood vaccines.

When is the vaccine given? 

The CDC recommends that children receive doses of the rotavirus vaccine at: 

RotaTeq® (RV5) is given in 3 doses at ages:

  • 2 months of age 
  • 4 months of age 
  • 6 months of age

Rotarix® (RV1) is given in 2 doses at ages:

  • 2 months of age
  • 4 months of age

The first dose of either vaccine is most effective if given before 15 weeks of age. Children should receive their last dose of rotavirus vaccine before they turn 8 months old.

What are the possible side effects? 

Like any medicine, vaccines can have side effects. Most babies who get the vaccine have no problems but some babies may experience irritability, mild diarrhea, or vomiting. Some studies have shown a small increase in cases of intussusception - a rare type of bowel blockage that occurs in some babies every year for unknown reasons. The increase in risk for babies who have had the rotavirus vaccination occurs about one week after receiving the first or second dose of rotavirus vaccine. The estimated additional risk for infants who receive the vaccine ranges from about 1 in 20,000 to 1 in 100,000. Despite this concern, the CDC continues to recommend the rotavirus vaccine based on evidence showing that the benefits outweigh the risks.

When should I call a doctor? 

Parents should be particularly watchful for signs of stomach pain, including bouts of severe crying, even if they last only a few minutes and come and go several times in an hour. Contact your child’s health care provider right away for severe crying, or if there is vomiting, bloody stools, very high fever, extreme weakness or irritability, or unusual behavior. Parents should also contact their child’s health care provider if their child has a high fever (100°F or higher in newborns up to 6 weeks old; 102°F or higher in children ages 6 weeks to 2 years). If you think your baby may be exhibiting signs of intussusception, call your doctor immediately; if you can’t reach the doctor, take your baby to the nearest emergency room. 

As with any medication, keep an eye out for signs of severe allergic reaction - typically within a few minutes to a few hours - such as hives, swelling of the face and throat, difficulty breathing, hoarseness, wheezing, or unusual sleepiness. If you think your child is having an allergic reaction, call 911 and get your baby to the nearest emergency room right away.

Last updated June 18, 2019

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