As parents, especially for those who are new to parenthood, sometimes it is easy to get confused as to whether your child’s health problem is a common illness or something you should worry about.
Diarrhoea and vomiting are among the common health problems often faced by children and infants1. However, it should not be underestimated because it is most likely caused by Rotavirus. Rotavirus disease is a common disease in children and may be serious and dangerous, especially for babies2, yet many parents still seem to be taking it lightly.
We have interviewed a paediatrician from FirstStep Child Specialist Clinic, Dr. JoAnn Rajah, to provide further explanation about Rotavirus disease.
Question: Before going into detail about Rotavirus, could you please share some other common diseases that affect children which are typically harmless but without good care/ prevention measures can be life threatening?
Dr. JoAnn Rajah: Due to their immature immune system, young children are prone to infection. Some common childhood illnesses include cold, sore throat, ear infection, skin infection, stomach flu (gastroenteritis), and many more. Parents should never take these conditions lightly as they can lead to severe complications if left untreated.*
What is Rotavirus?
Rotavirus is a virus that causes infection and inflammation in the stomach and intestines. Rotavirus is one of the leading causes of acute diarrhoea and vomiting in children3.
If viewed under a microscope, Rotavirus particles have a wheel-like appearance. This is how the virus’ name is derived as the word ‘Rota’ means wheel in Latin4.
Rotavirus is very contagious among children because their body’s immune system has not fully developed. According to statistics, every 5-year-old child can be infected with Rotavirus at least once4.
Therefore, parents should not take Rotavirus infection lightly, as children may be more prone to complications caused by dehydration, if not treated immediately2,3,4. Loss of body fluids can be fatal, especially in infants.
Image for representation purpose only
If your child has come into contact with Rotavirus, symptoms won’t show up for about 2 days5. Then, they may present with:
- Acute diarrhoea5
- Severe vomiting5
- Stomach ache5
The disease is typically associated with an unsanitary environment and handling of food and drinks5. With poor sanitation and poor personal hygiene, an infected person can transmit the virus through food, drink and items he or she has touched. Rotavirus spreads easily through hand-to-mouth contact5.
Image for representation purpose only
Rotavirus mostly infects children under the age of 54 due to the nature of children at this age who like to put things in their mouth.
The virus can survive on hard and dry surfaces for more than 10 days and survive on wet areas for days or even weeks6.
How Rotavirus Affects Children
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that in 2008, about half a million children died from Rotavirus infection which accounted for about 5 percent of total child deaths worldwide4.
In Malaysia, about 22% to 50% of cases of diarrhoea in children are caused by Rotavirus4. This is of great concern as severe diarrhoea and/or vomiting can result in dehydration4. Without immediate treatment, children and infants who experience severe loss of fluids and electrolytes from the body are susceptible to life threatening complications3.
Hence, if your children are experiencing vomiting and diarrhoea, take note of their fluid intake and make sure they drink enough water. Although there is no specific treatment for this disease other than making sure your child gets an adequate water intake, immediately see the doctor for check up and seek clinical treatment, if necessary.
Rotavirus infection can be treated faster if the child has a good immune system.
Question: Doctor, in your experience, if a child or baby is infected with Rotavirus, can he or she spread the virus to older family members such as parents or other siblings?
Dr. JoAnn Rajah: Absolutely! Rotavirus can survive on the surface of objects for many days and is therefore highly contagious. That is why Rotavirus infection spreads easily not only within families but also in hospitals and childcare centres.*
Question: Doctor, can you advise and explain, especially to those who have just become parents, what are the safety measures they should take to protect their children against Rotavirus?
Dr. JoAnn Rajah: Good hygiene, like hand washing and cleanliness, is important to reduce the risk of getting Rotavirus infection. However, hygiene alone may not be enough to control the spread of the disease. Rotavirus vaccination is one of the other ways to help protect your child from Rotavirus disease.*
Importance of Vaccination
In the process of growing up, your children will constantly be exposed to the risk of infectious diseases. Due to that, health experts recommend that parents adhere to the immunisation schedule set by the Ministry of Health Malaysia.
Question: There have been discussions regarding the effectiveness of vaccines versus natural antibodies, for example, “antibodies formed from vaccines are better than antibodies produced when a child is naturally exposed to the disease.” Is this statement true? Could you provide a brief explanation on this?
Dr. JoAnn Rajah: First and foremost, parents should understand that despite their best efforts to shelter their children, exposure to viruses or bacteria is inevitable. Both natural infection and vaccination can help the body build immunity towards these infections. However, immunity through natural infection often comes with a heavy price of suffering from disease symptoms and complications.*
Rotavirus vaccines are given orally. Image for representation purpose only
Question: From your experience, is it true that the majority of parents out there do not understand Rotavirus and its risks?
Dr. JoAnn Rajah: Nowadays, with the availability of the internet and the rise of social media, parents are more aware of the Rotavirus immunisation. However, not many parents know what are the preventive measures against Rotavirus. It is recommended that parents speak to their doctors at the earliest practicable opportunity to understand more.*
Based on Dr. JoAnn Rajah’s explanation, we can understand that parents should strongly consider the preventive measures that they can take for their children. These can include ensuring hygiene and suitable vaccinations.
Parents should always stick to the principle, prevention is better than cure because we do not know the extent of our children’s body’s resistance in fighting disease naturally.
Question: Lastly, doctor, could you please summarise your advice for parents out there on the best way to protect their children against Rotavirus?
Dr. JoAnn Rajah: As I mentioned earlier, maintaining good hygiene by washing hands frequently reduces the risk of Rotavirus infection. In addition, vaccination is also one of the preventive measures that parents can take.*
*This information is provided as a professional service by MSD. The views expressed in the publication reflects the experience and opinions of the authors.
- nidirect. Childhood illnesses. Available From: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/conditions/childhood-illnesses. Last Accessed 30 Sep 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rotavirus. Available From: https://www.cdc.gov/Rotavirus/index.html. Last Accessed 30 Sep 2022.
- Portal MyHealth. Rotavirus Infection. Available From: https://www.myhealth.gov.my/jangkitan-Rotavirus/. Last Accessed 30 Sep 2022.
- Portal MyHealth. Rotavirus Vaccine. Available From: https://www.myhealth.gov.my/en/Rotavirus-vaccine/. Last Accessed 30 Sep 2022.
- Mayo Clinic. Rotavirus. Available From: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/Rotavirus/symptoms-causes/syc-20351300. Last Accessed 30 Sep 2022.
- Ansari SA, Springthrope VS & Sattar SA. Survival and Vehicular Spread of Human Rotaviruses: Possible Relation to Seasonality of Outbreaks. Reviews of Infectious Diseases [Internet]. 1991(13);3.