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GPs see much fewer gastroenteritis cases since introduction of rotavirus vaccine

There has been a sharp decline in GP visits for acute gastroenteritis since the rotavirus vaccine was introduced, a Public Health England study has found.

According to the report, there were an estimated 64,457 cases averted in general practice settings for children under five in 2013/14.

In all, 87,000 visits for young children were averted across GPs, hospitals and emergency departments in 2013/14, saving £12.5m in total, according to the reseach carried out by PHE and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The study, published in the journal Vaccine, found that infants (the age group that receives the rotavirus vaccine) showed the largest decrease in visits – in GP practices rates of acute gastroenteritis decreased by 15%, and by 41% in months of normally high rotavirus circulation (February-March), with the annual peak disappearing in both 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Older children and adults, who had not directly received the vaccine, also decreased in their visits for acute gastroenteritis.

There was a decrease of 21% overall and 50% in high season for children aged one and 11-13% (25-28% in high season) in children aged three to five.

While there was less evidence of a decrease overall in older children and adults, rates were reduced by 12-16% in high season. The authors said that this indicated herd immunity, with unvaccinated people protected due to reduced circulation of the virus.

The rotavirus vaccination programme was introduced in 2013, given as oral drops in two doses to babies between two and three months old.

One limitation in the study is that it is not certain that the vaccine has caused these declines or whether there is another factor, but work is underway to directly compare acute gastroenteritis rates in vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

Lead author Dr Sara Thomas, associate professor in epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘This study helps to give a more complete picture of the impact of rotavirus vaccination, and shows the rapid reduction in the burden of acute gastroenteritis seen in GP surgeries.

‘We found that the expected seasonal peak of acute gastroenteritis in the months when rates historically would have been high completely disappeared. The fact that GP visits for gastroenteritis in other age groups fell provides evidence that unvaccinated older individuals are also benefitting from the vaccine being introduced.’

Study co-author Dr Shamez Ladhani, immunisation consultant at Public Health England, said: ‘This is good news and it is reassuring that the rotavirus vaccine is preventing so many cases of vomiting and diarrhoea since it was introduced three years ago.

'This is thanks to the high vaccine uptake in infants, which has also helped to protect older unvaccinated children and adults of all ages across the UK. It is also further evidence that our UK Immunisation programme is playing a vital role in protecting the public’s health.’

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