A federal advisory panel recommended Tuesday that all infants be immunized against rotavirus, which causes vomiting, dehydration and diarrhea. The government hopes the new vaccine will put a major dent in its impact.
For most kids, rotavirus isn't a big deal. Lots of parents don't even notice when their children have it. But each year, 70,000 children in the United States will get a case so severe that they'll be admitted to intensive care.
In the last week alone, Arkansas Children's Hospital has seen 20 cases of rotavirus. Dr. J. Gary Wheeler says that most kids will experience one episode of the disease by the time they're 3 years old. One of those is 11-month old Sarah Christians, who's been in the ICU at the Arkansas hospital for five days.
Claire Smith, Sarah's mom, would welcome a vaccine. "If there's a vaccine out there for this kind of thing, then why not use it?" she says.
The Centers for Disease Control has been trying to rid the country of rotavirus for years, but it hasn't been easy. There was a vaccine on the market in the late 1990s, but it was pulled within a year because of rare side effects. However, a new vaccine, developed by doctors Fred Clark and Paul Offitt, has been tested in about 70,000 children — and the FDA now considers it safe and effective.
"It's gratifying to know at last we have in hand a technology which can prevent a lot of suffering in this country," says Offitt, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
The vaccine could be a real boon in developing nations, where thousands of kids under the age of 5 die from the illness every year. Though rotavirus is rarely fatal in the United States these days, its prevalence causes thousands of hospitalizations, lots of missed work and thousands of worried parents.
"It's hard to see your child in this state," says Kris Christians, Sarah's father. "Any preventive measure we could take would be great."
The Food and Drug Administration's recommendation is that all children between 2 and 6 months get the rotavirus vaccine. The good news for the kids: No needles! The vaccine is not a shot — it will be given as drops squirted into the mouth.