Rotavirus is an infection that causes severe diarrhoea and vomiting in babies and young children. It can lead to dehydration (loss of body fluids) requiring hospital treatment. The rotavirus immunisation protects your baby against this illness.
Questions and answers
What is rotavirus?
Rotavirus is a virus that infects the gut (tummy), causing severe diarrhoea and vomiting. Most babies get sick (vomit) or have diarrhoea at some time and recover fully after a few days. However, sickness and diarrhoea caused by the rotavirus can lead to dehydration (loss of body fluids). Dehydration can be very dangerous for babies and young children and can require hospital treatment.
In Scotland, around 1200 babies have to go to hospital every year with rotavirus. Since the vaccine was introduced in 2013, the number of laboratory confirmed cases in infants has fallen by more than 80%.
How is rotavirus spread?
Babies and children with rotavirus can pass the virus to others. The virus spreads easily by hand-to-mouth contact. It can be picked up from surfaces, such as toys, food, kitchen utensils, door handles or dirty nappies (the virus is in the faeces/poo). Your baby can then swallow the virus when they put their hand in their mouth.
Rotavirus can also be spread through tiny droplets in the air from coughs. You can help prevent the spread of the virus by washing your hands and keeping surfaces clean.
However, evidence shows that the most effective way to prevent babies catching rotavirus is immunisation.
How can I protect my baby from rotavirus?
The most important thing you can do is have your baby immunised against rotavirus, as part of the Routine Childhood Immunisation Programme in Scotland.
In countries where babies already get the rotavirus vaccine there has been a big drop in the number of babies and young children going to hospital because of the virus. We expect the same to happen here now the immunisation programme has started.
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When should my baby have the immunisation?
To get the best protection, your baby should get two rotavirus immunisations one month apart. They will normally be given with your baby’s other routine immunisations at 2 months and again at 3 months of age, so there’s no need for extra visits to the clinic or surgery.
As they get older, some babies (about 1 in 1000) get a condition that causes a blockage in their lower gut. It is extremely rare before 3 months of age and most cases occur between the ages of 5 months and 1 year. However, there is a very small chance (around 2 in every 100,000 babies vaccinated) that the first dose of the vaccine might also cause this blockage to develop. To reduce this risk, the first dose of the vaccine will not be given to babies older than 15 weeks of age. Babies who receive the first dose before week 15 should have their second dose four weeks later, and before 24 weeks.
The vaccine should not be given to babies older than 24 weeks of age. Many unvaccinated babies over 24 weeks will have already had the rotavirus infection and should have built up some immunity to it, so future infections will be less severe.
And if lots of younger babies are having the immunisation then the chances of it spreading will be reduced. Rotavirus causes fewer problems in older children, and it is rare in adults.
How is the vaccine given?
Unlike most immunisations, rotavirus isn’t given by injection. It is given by mouth (orally) as a liquid.
What if my baby is sick immediately after the immunisation is given?
The vaccine will be given again.
I’ve heard it’s a live vaccine. Won’t that make my baby catch the illness or its symptoms?
No. The virus in the vaccine is weakened so that it doesn’t cause the illness. It helps your baby build up immunity to it, so that next time your baby comes into contact with the virus it can fight it off.
The virus in the vaccine will pass through your baby’s gut and may be picked up by whoever changes his or
her nappy. This may mean that people with a severely weakened immune system could catch the virus from
your baby. Therefore, people whose immune systems are severely compromised because of a medical condition or treatment should avoid this sort of close contact with babies who have had the rotavirus vaccine for 14 days.
Anyone who is in close contact with a baby who has recently had the rotavirus immunisation should ensure good personal hygiene, for example, washing their hands after changing a baby’s nappy.
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Are there any side effects to the immunisation?
Many millions of doses of the vaccine have been used and it has a good safety record. Babies who have had the vaccine can sometimes become restless and tetchy, and some may even develop mild diarrhoea. If you’re at all concerned about your baby’s health a day or so after any vaccination you should speak to your GP, practice nurse or health visitor.
In very rare cases (about 2 in every 100,000 babies vaccinated), the vaccine can affect the baby’s lower gut. They may develop pain in their tummy, vomiting, and sometimes they may pass what looks like red currant jelly in their nappies.
If this happens or you’re worried about your child, speak to your GP or call NHS 24 on 111 (freephone) or go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.
Is there any reason why my child should not be immunised?
There are very few babies who cannot receive the rotavirus vaccine. The vaccine should not be given to babies who:
- have had anaphylactic reactions (severe allergic reaction) to a previous dose of the vaccine or any ingredients of the vaccine, or
- have certain rare, long-term conditions that will be known to your GP, for example, Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (SCID) disorder.
What if my baby is ill on the day the immunisation is due?
Unless your baby is very unwell (for example, with a fever, diarrhoea or vomiting), there’s no reason to delay the appointment.
Where can I get more information?
For more information, talk to your health visitor, practice nurse or GP, or call the NHS inform helpline on 0800 22 44 88 (textphone 18001 0800 22 44 88). The helpline is open every day 8 am to 10 pm and also provides an interpreting service.
You can report suspected side effects of vaccines and medicines through the Yellow Card Scheme. This can be done online by visiting www.yellowcard.gov.uk (external link) or by calling the Yellow Card hotline on 0808 100 3352 (available Monday to Friday – 10 am to 2 pm).
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