The number of children struck by a debilitating virus has risen fivefold since the start of 2015 — two years after Department of Health advisors recommended vaccinating against it.
More children have been infected with rotavirus in the first four months of this year than in the whole of 2014 or in any other year except one since it became a notifiable illness in 2004.
Figures from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre show that, up to last week, there were 2,585 notified cases of rotavirus compared to 2,066 for all of last year.
In 2012, the worst year on record for the illness, the annual total reached 2,651.
Rotavirus is a gastrointestinal bug that can cause severe fever, vomiting, and diarrhoea, almost exclusively in the under-5s and predominantly in under-2s.
Many thousands of preschool children contract it each year but only about one in five become ill enough to need a GP, where cases are recorded, and one in 10 of those end up in hospital.
Rotavirus is rarely fatal, although it can be for children with underlying conditions. However, the burden it places on healthcare providers led the National Immunisation Advisory Committee to tell the Department of Health in 2013 that it should begin vaccinating against it.
That advice was not acted upon but an expert in infection diseases has urged the department to now put a vaccination plan in place.
Consultant microbiologist Robert Cunney works at Temple Street Children’s Hospital where, during February and March, the emergency department dealt with two and a half times its normal level of seriously ill children, much of the surge being attributed to rotavirus.
“Certainly this year we were seeing a lot more children presenting to the hospital with rotavirus so we are very aware of the increase out there,” said Dr Cunney.
“For every child that ends up coming to the emergency department, there are probably 10 or even 100 cases in the community so it does have a huge impact.
“It doesn’t tend to be life-threatening — although it can be in some children — but from the point of view of the burden of illness on the children and on parents and hospitals, including the rotavirus vaccine in the childhood immunisation scheme would make a big difference.
“That’s been the experience in the UK where they’ve introduced it. It has really helped to relieve that burden of illness and take a lot of pressure off the hospitals.”
An oral vaccine is used in the UK, administered by dropper to infants at two and four months old. It is so far credited with a 70% reduction in infections.
The National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics, which analyses the cost-effectiveness of new medicines, said in 2010 it would not be worthwhile introducing the vaccine. Three years later, in May 2013, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, which reports to the Department of Health’s chief medical officer, advised that vaccination should begin.
A spokesman for the department said it is “considering this advice in the context of developments to the Primary Childhood Immunisation Schedule in 2016”.
Dr Cunney said the infection rate was expected to fall soon as rotavirus normally peaks in late winter and spring, but he said it was not clear what was causing this year’s surge.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved