Global Illness and Deaths Caused by Rotavirus Disease in Children

Umesh D. Parashar, Erik G. Hummelman, Joseph S. Bresee, Mark A. Miller, Roger I. Glass

Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2003;9(5) 

In This Article


The findings of this study demonstrate the tremendous amount of global illness and deaths caused by rotavirus disease. Each year, rotavirus causes an estimated 111 million episodes of diarrhea requiring only home care, 25 million clinic visits, 2 million hospitalizations, and 352,000-592,000 deaths (median 440,000 deaths) in children <5 years of age. In other words, by 5 years of age, almost all children will have an episode of rotavirus gastroenteritis, 1 in 5 will require a clinic visit, 1 in 65 will require hospitalization, and approximately 1 in 293 will die (Figure 3). The incidence of rotavirus disease is similar in children in both developed and developing nations. However, children in developing nations die more frequently, possibly because of several factors, including poorer access to hydration therapy and a greater prevalence of malnutrition. An estimated 1,205 children die from rotavirus disease each day, and 82% of these deaths occur in children in the poorest countries.

In 1986, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) estimated, on the basis of published studies and field experience, that annually rotavirus causes approximately 110 million episodes of mild diarrhea, 10 million episodes of moderate to severe diarrhea, and 9 million episodes of severe diarrhea in children <5 years of age worldwide.[23] Our estimate of the incidence of rotavirus gastroenteritis is similar to the IOM estimate and is consistent with a recent analysis demonstrating that overall diarrhea illness in children worldwide has not declined appreciably in the past two decades.[5] However, our estimate of total hospitalizations from rotavirus disease is substantially lower than the IOM estimate. The difference might be explained, in part, by the relatively low hospitalization rate for diarrhea in the study in Chile (1.5% of all diarrhea episodes) used in our calculations.[8] However, a study in a low-income urban community in Thailand showed a similar hospitalization rate (1% of all diarrhea episodes) among children with diarrhea,[10] giving us added confidence in our estimates. Increased use of oral rehydration therapy and improvements in nutritional status are two factors that might explain a possible reduction in severe rotavirus cases without a concomitant decline in diarrhea incidence.[24,25]

Our estimate of 352,000-592,000 deaths (median: 440,000 deaths) from rotavirus disease each year is similar to a recent estimate of 418,000-520,000 deaths proposed by Miller and McCann[6] but is substantially lower than the 1985 IOM estimate of 873,000 deaths. This decline in the rotavirus mortality rate parallels the decline in overall deaths from diarrhea in children in the past two decades, from an estimated 4.6 million deaths in 1982[26] to our estimate of 2.1 million deaths in 2000. However, the patterns of diarrhea deaths reported in this study reflect the situation a decade ago, when most studies that we reviewed were conducted. Analyses of vital registration data from several countries have suggested that the proportion of deaths from diarrhea may have declined further in recent years.[27] Other studies have noted marked discrepancies in the analysis of cause of death from vital registration data and prospective observational studies.[28] Careful and detailed analyses are required to assess the current magnitude of the deaths from diarrhea in children, and the results will directly affect our estimates of deaths from rotavirus disease. For example, if our estimated proportion of severe diarrhea cases attributable to rotavirus is applied to the recent estimate of 2.5 million annual diarrhea deaths developed by Kosek et al.,[5] we estimate 416,000-700,000 annual deaths (median:520,000 deaths) from rotavirus disease.

Another important factor that could affect our estimate of rotavirus deaths is the possibility that as the overall mortality rate from diarrhea has declined over the past two decades, the proportion of diarrhea deaths attributable to rotavirus may have increased, given that this pathogen is often transmitted from person to person and is difficult to control through improvements in hygiene and sanitation. This hypothesis is supported by data from Mexico, demonstrating that whereas deaths from diarrhea declined substantially from 1989 to 1995, the decline was less evident for winter seasonal deaths in children <2 years of age whose illness met the epidemiologic features of rotavirus diarrhea.[29] In addition, some recent studies of rotavirus based on hospital surveillance in developing countries have demonstrated detection rates in excess of 50%.[30,31] If this trend is confirmed as additional data become available from ongoing surveillance studies in several regions of the world, the estimates of rotavirus deaths reported in this article will have to be revised to reflect current mortality patterns.

This review, based on a compilation of studies varying in design, time, and place, has several inherent limitations that we attempted to address. Because of the marked seasonality of rotavirus disease and the variation in the sensitivity and specificity of diagnostic tests for rotavirus, we restricted this review to studies that lasted at least 1 year and used reliable assays for the detection of rotavirus. To account for known temporal changes in the magnitude and patterns of diarrhea-associated childhood deaths, we reviewed only studies published within the last 15 years and used the most recent available estimates of total deaths in children <5 years to calculate estimates of deaths from diarrhea. Furthermore, because regional boundaries are primarily based on geographic and political considerations and do not necessarily reflect important determinants of health, we used indicators of socioeconomic status to stratify our analyses of mortality patterns.

Nevertheless, we could not adequately account for several factors that may have affected our findings. First, the studies we reviewed were conducted in selective populations that may not have been representative of the entire country. Second, most diarrhea mortality studies used verbal autopsies to determine the cause of death, which may affect our estimates because these methods have variable sensitivity and specificity and it is difficult, if not impossible, to assign a single cause of death for children who died with multiple conditions.[32,33,34] Finally, because of a time lag between the conduct of studies and publication of their findings, our data likely do not reflect the most current trends of diarrhea and rotavirus disease patterns.

In 1998, the first rotavirus vaccine was licensed in the United States, offering an encouraging opportunity for the prevention of this disease. However, the vaccine was withdrawn within a year of licensure because it caused an estimated one case of intussusception for every 12,000 vaccinated infants. The lack of sufficient data on the efficacy of vaccine in developing countries as well as political and ethical considerations diminished prospects for its use in these settings. Our findings demonstrate that the next generation of rotavirus vaccines will have greatest impact in developing countries where the disease burden is greatest. Our estimates of rotavirus mortality rates for individual countries, although developed with relatively crude methods, compare favorably with those from more detailed analysis conducted in selected countries. For example, good concordance was noted between the previous figures and our estimates of rotavirus mortality for Bangladesh (14,850-27,000 vs. 13,104 deaths),[35] Peru (1,600 vs. 1,360 deaths),[36] and India (98,000 vs. 100,800 deaths).[37] The establishment of regional networks for rotavirus surveillance in sentinel hospitals will facilitate more timely and refined estimates of disease illness and death. These data, along with information on illness and costs of rotavirus infections, will assist policy makers in assessing the magnitude of the problem of rotavirus in their own setting and in setting priorities for interventions, such as the next generation of rotavirus vaccines, which may be available in the near future.


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