Rotavirus is highly contagious and a common cause of infectious diarrhoea in developing countries. Since children younger than three are worst affected, a paediatrician sheds light on detection, prevention and treatment.
Nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhoea and fever are the most common symptoms of rotavirus. These symptoms usually start one to three days after exposure to the virus and last for an average of eight days.
‘If your family doctor or paediatrician suspects your child has rotavirus, the infection can be confirmed with a stool sample test,’ says Dr Heidi Ackermann, a paediatrician at Mediclinic George. Adults can also contract the virus, but the symptoms are usually much milder.
‘You can also can get the virus more than once, but you won’t get re-infected with the same strain,’ Dr Ackermann adds. Important to note is that although blood in the stools is not a symptom of the virus, it is a symptom that can’t be ignored and should be checked out by your doctor.
A rotavirus vaccine is available as part of South Africa’s Expanded Programme for Immunisations (EPI), and babies should be vaccinated against the virus at six weeks. ‘Reported cases of rotavirus have declined significantly since the introduction of the vaccine in 2009,’ Dr Ackermann confirms. ‘However, certain areas in South Africa report rotavirus to be the cause of up to 28% of cases of diarrhoea.’
The best defence is proper hand washing and practising good hygiene. The rotavirus is spread via the faecal-oral-route, which means that unwashed or badly washed hands will contaminate people, objects, water and food with infected faeces.
‘Children with confirmed rotavirus gastroenteritis should not return to preschool or school until they have had no episodes of vomiting or diarrhoea for at least 24 hours,’ Dr Ackermann cautions.
There is no antivirus treatment available for rotavirus, so treatment is aimed at correcting hydration or preventing dehydration. Severe watery diarrhoea and vomiting can cause dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities that can be very dangerous. Dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities can lead to shock and seizures if left untreated.
‘Children with rotavirus should receive adequate nutrition and electrolyte imbalances should be corrected if necessary,’ says Dr Ackermann. ‘Children who are dehydrated or do not tolerate oral fluids will usually need to be admitted to hospital so they can be monitored and receive fluids from an IV-drip. Children who are able tolerate oral liquids can be treated at home with an oral rehydration solution, a bland diet, and pain medication as required.’
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