What You Need to Know about Rotavirus

What is rotavirus?

  • The name rotavirus was suggested by Thomas Henry Flewett in 1974 after he observed that a rotavirus particle looks like a wheel (rota in Latin) when viewed through an electron microscope.
  • There are nine species of rotavirus, consisting of Rotavirus A, B, C, D, F, G, H, I and J.
  • Rotavirus A is the most common species, causing the majority (>90%) of rotavirus infections in humans.
  • It is also the most common cause of severe diarrhoea among infants and young children.
  • It is estimated that every child would have been infected by rotavirus at least once by the age of five.
  • A study published in 2016 estimated that rotavirus causes 27 deaths, 31,000 hospitalisations and 41,000 outpatient visits in Malaysia annually.

How does rotavirus infection spread?

  • Rotavirus is a highly contagious virus that is transmitted by the faecal-oral route.
  • The viruses are shed in high amount in the stool of infected people and spread easily through hand-to-mouth and close person-to-person contact, as well as by fomites (surfaces and objects, like door handles and toys), foods and beverages, and unclean water.
  • The virus is very stable and may remain viable in the environment for a long time, up to weeks, if there is no disinfection process.

What are the common signs of rotavirus infection?

Typical signs include gastrointestinal symptoms, which generally resolve in 3-7 days and are non-specific, such as:

  • Diarrhoea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Tiredness

What do you need to be alert of?

Beware of severe dehydration in your child as this can be life-threatening! Here are the signs:

  • Little urination or dry diapers
  • Crying with no tears
  • Dry mouth and throat
  • Irritability
  • Extreme sleepiness
  • Sunken eyes
  • Poor skin elasticity

How can rotavirus infection be managed?

  • Consult a doctor if your child is showing any symptoms of severe rotavirus infection or dehydration.
  • Certain medications may be prescribed to alleviate the symptoms. Note that antibiotics are not effective against viral infections.
  • The main focus of treatment is to prevent dehydration:
    • Babies: Continue feeding them with breast-milk or formula as usual. Oral rehydration solutions (ORS) may be necessary.
    • Older children: Give plenty of fluids from drinks or foods. ORS may be prescribed to the child.
    • Avoid carbonated drinks, apple juice, dairy products and sugary foods, as these may worsen diarrhoea.

How can it be prevented?

  • Good hygiene
    • Frequent and thorough hand-washing (e.g. after using the toilet, changing your child’s diaper).
    • Regular cleaning method is insufficient. The best option is to use a bleach solution (1 part bleach + 9 parts water) to disinfect surfaces/objects.
  • Rotavirus vaccination
    • Vaccination is the primary public health intervention against rotavirus.
    • Two types of oral vaccine available: 2-dose series and 3-dose series.
    • Can be given as early as age 6 weeks with a minimum interval of 4 weeks between doses and maximum age for any doses at age 8 months.
    • Speak to your doctor to learn more about rotavirus vaccination.

An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.

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