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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Vaccines, Blood & Biologics

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Vaccines

Background on Rotavirus

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea and dehydration in young infants worldwide.  It is estimated to be responsible for the deaths of more than 500,000 infants around the world each year, primarily in low- and middle-income countries.  Before the introduction of a rotavirus vaccine, rotavirus resulted in an estimated 55,000-70,000 hospitalizations and dozens of deaths in the U.S. each year.

What is rotavirus?

Rotavirus is named after its characteristic wheel-like appearance when viewed under an electron microscope.  The viral genome is composed of 11 segments of double-stranded RNA that code for six structural and five nonstructural proteins.  It can be diagnosed through commercially available tests that detect the virus in stool.

What are the symptoms of rotavirus infection?
Rotavirus infects the intestines.  The disease usually starts with fever, an upset stomach, and vomiting, followed by diarrhea.  The disease generally lasts 3-8 days.  In the United States, rotavirus infection generally occurs during the winter and spring.

How is rotavirus infection treated?
There is no specific treatment for the rotavirus infection.  The most serious problem caused by the disease is dehydration, so symptoms are treated by rehydration.  Severe cases require administration of intravenous fluids in a hospital.  
Rotavirus disease can be prevented with vaccination.

How does rotavirus spread?
Rotavirus is usually spread when children touch or place in their mouths small, usually invisible amounts of fecal matter found on surfaces such as toys, books and clothing, or on the hands of caregivers.  The virus can also be transmitted through contaminated water or food, and possibly by respiratory droplets in a sneeze, cough, or exhalation.  The virus is very contagious.  Nearly all children are infected with rotavirus at some point before the age of 5.