What Parents Need to Know About This Nasty Stomach Flu

A Safe Solution

RotaTeq is actually the second rotavirus vaccine. The first one was pulled off the market in 1999 after it was linked to intussusception, a rare type of bowel obstruction. Because of these concerns, RotaTeq was tested extensively -- in nearly 35,000 babies in 11 countries -- before it was approved. The results, published last year in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that RotaTeq reduced ER visits and hospitalizations due to rotavirus by 94 percent. "This is a very safe vaccine," says Paul Offit, MD, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who developed RotaTeq with two other researchers. "It didn't cause serious side effects in any of the children we studied."

Certainly, the fact that this vaccine doesn't involve a shot will make things easier for parents. Oral vaccines work by eliciting an immune response directly in the intestines, which is important for a bug like rotavirus, which enters the body through the mouth, rather than the lungs (like measles or mumps), explains Dr. Dennehy, who helped test the vaccine. While stomach acid can break down many substances, rotavirus isn't one of them. "It's a pretty hardy virus," says Dr. Offit.

Some babies who've been vaccinated may still catch the virus, but they'll have much milder symptoms. Similarly, toddlers and preschoolers, who are too old to get the vaccine, are unlikely to have a severe case because they've probably already been exposed to rotavirus -- which has only a few variations -- at least once, says Nathan Litman, MD, director of pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore, in New York City.

Take Treatment Seriously

Although rotavirus causes only 5 to 10 percent of cases of so-called stomach flu, it usually makes children sicker than other bugs do. If your child has diarrhea and is vomiting, give her frequent sips of a pediatric electrolyte solution. If she has symptoms of dehydration -- a dry mouth, sunken eyes, dry diapers, no tears when crying -- call your doctor. Go to the ER if your child is lethargic, listless, or unable to keep any liquid down. She'll probably need IV fluids.

Although no medicine has been approved to treat rotavirus, a recent study found that the drug nitazoxanide may shorten the duration of the illness in young children. Nitazoxanide is currently approved to treat two diarrheal infections that are commonly contracted when swimming in contaminated lakes and streams. Larger studies would have to confirm its safety and effectiveness before it could be approved for rotavirus.

Despite the potential severity of rotavirus, Dr. Offit knows there will still be some parents who'll choose not to vaccinate their children. "If you consider the numbers -- 100 percent of children will be infected by age 5 -- you might change your mind," he says. "With other vaccines, you might wonder whether your child could ever catch the illness, but with rotavirus, he'll definitely get the infection."

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