Wendy Singer-Lowry will never forget how dramatically her 11-month-old's behavior changed that day. One moment, Jacob was full of energy and starting to cruise around the house, and the next, he was lying perfectly still, barely moving his eyelids. Before long, he spiked a fever, began vomiting, and had continual diarrhea. "It had the most foul, distinctive smell," says Singer-Lowry, of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. "He got dehydrated so quickly, and lost almost a pound in two days." Fortunately, Jacob recovered, but not before a trip to the pediatrician, a late-night visit to the emergency room, and three days of intensive home care. "We fed him one teaspoon of liquid every five minutes all day," says Singer-Lowry.
Jacob was struck by rotavirus, a virulent stomach bug that's actually the second most common cause (after asthma) of hospitalization in young children. Although most parents have never even heard of it, rotavirus is responsible for more than half a million doctor's visits, more than 200,000 trips to the emergency room, and 20 to 60 deaths in children under age 5 in the U.S. each year. It's so pervasive -- not only in this country, but worldwide, where it kills about 600,000 children annually -- that doctors had been trying to develop a vaccine to prevent it for more than 25 years.
Until now, almost all kids got a bout of rotavirus by age 5. Babies and toddlers are most vulnerable because the hallmarks of the infection -- fever, vomiting, and diarrhea -- can last for a week and cause severe dehydration in just a few hours, says Penelope Dennehy, MD, professor of pediatrics at Brown Medical School, in Providence. The only treatment is rehydration therapy.
The very good news: Not only is there a new vaccine, but it's injection-free. RotaTeq is an oral vaccine that will be given to infants at 2, 4, and 6 months. (Babies need to get the first dose by 12 weeks and all three doses by 32 weeks.) In fact, once children start getting the vaccine routinely, doctors expect that severe cases of rotavirus will virtually disappear in the U.S.