It was hardly a surprise when a new study found that vaccinating children against a dangerous virus helped keep them out of the hospital. But it was a surprise to find that the vaccine also appeared to lessen their risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
The study, which was done by researchers from the University of Michigan, used anonymous data on a million and a half American children collected from national health insurance records. The investigators wanted to learn about the effectiveness of the rotavirus vaccine, which first became available in 2006. Rotavirus is most common in infants and young children. The symptoms are sometimes described as “stomach flu” — fever, vomiting, watery diarrhea, stomach pain — and it can be dangerous if it leads to loss of appetite and dehydration.
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The results were dramatic. Children who got the rotavirus vaccine had a 94% lower rate of hospitalization for rotavirus infection than those who didn’t. In fact, they had a 31% lower chance of being hospitalized for any reason. But what the researchers didn’t expect to find was that the vaccinated children also had a 33% lower chance of later developing type 1 diabetes.
Mary A.M. Rogers, PhD, lead author of the study, said it would be premature to conclude that a cause-and-effect relationship exists between the rotavirus vaccine and the prevention of diabetes. “It will take more time and analyses to confirm these findings,” she said. “But,” Dr. Rogers added, “we do see a decline in type 1 diabetes in young children after the rotavirus vaccine is introduced.”
Some earlier research already supports the idea of a vaccine–diabetes link. Scientists have determined, for example, that the rotavirus attacks the same pancreatic cells that type 1 diabetes does. Also, an Australian study published last January found a relationship between the rotavirus vaccine and type 1 diabetes similar to that in the University of Michigan study, leading the authors of the Australian report to speculate that the vaccine could actually work as a diabetes prevention measure. As they put it, we already know the vaccine significantly reduces that chances of a child contracting a rotavirus infection. Wouldn’t it a wonderful bonus if it also helped prevent type 1 diabetes?
Want to learn more about parenting a child with type 1 diabetes? Read “The Type 1 Diabetes Diagnosis,” “Type 1 Diabetes and Sleepovers or Field Trips,” “Writing a Section 504 Plan for Diabetes,” and “Top 10 Tips for Better Blood Glucose Control.”
A freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area, Gustaitis has a degree in journalism from Columbia University.