We recently interviewed Paul A. Offit, MD, about his experience developing a rotavirus vaccine. His vaccine, known generically as rotavirus oral vaccine (commercially as RotaTeq), has been part of the recommended childhood immunization schedule since 2006. In the interview, Offit discusses an experience with rotavirus disease as a young physician, working with Stanley Plotkin, MD (developer of the rubella vaccine), the long process of creating the rotavirus vaccine, and the relief and pride involved in receiving encouraging safety results from post-licensure monitoring. He also discusses, more generally, how a researcher goes about developing a new vaccine.
Click the picture above to see one of the interview segments in The History of Vaccines Gallery.. See the entire set of Offit interview segments by searching for “Offit” in The History of Vaccines search box and clicking the Media tab to access all six video clips.
Dr. Offit is Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Although its name is not as well known as those of diseases like chickenpox or measles, rotavirus is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in children and infants worldwide. Before a vaccine was introduced in the United States, the disease caused more than 400,000 doctor visits and 200,000 emergency room visits each year, causing as many as 60 deaths annually in U.S. children younger than five. Globally, rotavirus kills more than 500,000 children each year, with most deaths in developing countries.
The virus spreads easily among children, and can also be passed from children to those with whom they’re in close contact. Rotavirus spreads via the fecal-oral route — that is, from the waste of an infected person to the mouth of another individual. This can occur via contamination on hands or objects like toys.
Rotavirus can be prevented by vaccination, with the first dose of the vaccine series recommended at two months of age. Efforts are also being made to make rotavirus vaccine available throughout the developing world. Mexico was one of the first countries to receive rotavirus vaccine in 2006; by the 2009 rotavirus season, death rates from diarrheal disease had dropped in both the target population for vaccination (children younger than 11 months old, where the rate dropped by 40%) and among children between one and two years of age (by almost 30%). The fact that death rates dropped even in a part of the population that is not targeted by the vaccine suggests that herd immunity benefited the unvaccinated individuals: with fewer infections to begin with, the disease circulated less in the population, leaving less opportunity for exposure.