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Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases: Rotavirus

Causal agent
Rotaviruses belongs to the reoviridae family.
There are 3 serogroups of which group A is the most common1.  

Common clinical features
Characterized by sudden onset of watery diarrhoea (occasionally with blood in the stool), vomiting, abdominal pain and mild fever.

Occasionally associated with severe dehydration and death in young children2


  • Endemic Worldwide
  • The most common cause of gastroenteritis in infants and young children in developed and developing countries. Most children are infected by rotavirus by age 3, with peak incidence of clinical disease in the 6-24 month age group2.
  • The WHO estimate that rotavirus accounts for almost 40% of all cases of severe diarrhoea worldwide and approximately 600,000 deaths each year (mostly in developing countries among children <2 years).
  • Rotavirus is a major cause of nosocomial diarrhoea in newborns and infants2.
  • Over 14,000 laboratory-confirmed cases of rotavirus are reported in the UK every year, although this is thought to represent only a fraction of the true incidence1.
  • In the UK it is estimated that approximately 18,000 children are hospitalised  in England and Wales due to rotavirus-related illness (HPA).
  • Outbreaks are common, especially in child day care setting such as nurseries and in hospitals.
  • In temperate climates such as the UK, the incidence is higher during the winter months.

Gastrointestinal tract of humans.

Mode of transmission

  • Person to person via the faecal-oral route.
  • Ingestion of contaminated food or water.
  • Although rotaviruses do not effectively multiply in the respiratory tract, they may be spread from respiratory secretions1,2.
  • Environmental contamination (contaminated surfaces).

Incubation period
1-3 days. 

Period of Communicability
During acute stage and for a short period after afterwards (usually < 1 week in healthy children)1.  

Prevention and control
Exclude from nursery or school (or risk occupations) until 48 hours after the resolution of diarrhoea and vomiting. 

Follow correct food hygiene practices for food preparation and cooking in domestic and commercial kitchens.

Good standard of infection control in hospitals and nursing homes.


  1. Hawker J, Begg N, Blair I, Reintjes R, Weinberg J. Communicable Disease Control Handbook, Blackwell, 2005.
  2. Heymann D L, editor, Control of Communicable Disease Manual. 18th ed. American Public Health Association; 2004.

© CM Kirwan 2006