A study done by researchers in Australia indicates that rotavirus infection might trigger the development of type 1 diabetes (T1D) in susceptible children and that vaccination against the virus might keep T1D from occurring in the first place.
Rotavirus is a common and contagious virus that mostly afflicts infants and young children. The most common symptom is watery diarrhea, but the virus can also cause vomiting, fever and stomach pain. A safe and effective vaccine has been available for about a decade, which has led to a decline in infections in countries where the vaccine is readily available and affordable.
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The authors of the new report, who were from the University of Melbourne, stated that since the rotavirus was introduced in Australia, there has been a 15% decrease in the incidence of T1D in Australian children under four years old. This finding corresponds to a study earlier this year from researchers at the University of Michigan that reported being vaccinated against rotavirus in the first months of life is associated with a lower risk of later developing T1D.
The Australian authors pointed to existing evidence associating rotavirus infection with islet autoantibodies, which are proteins produced by the immune system and which earlier research has found to be associated with T1D. According to Leonard C. Harrison, MD, lead author of the report, earlier research suggested that “rotavirus infection of pancreatic cells can trigger an immune attack against the insulin-producing cells ─ similar to what occurs in type 1 diabetes.”
Although the researchers speculated that the rotavirus vaccine might not prevent T1D in all children, they wrote that the effectiveness of the vaccine “may be the first clear example of primary prevention of T1D.” “It will be important,” they went on to say, “to identify, if possible, which children are most likely to be protected by RV vaccination.” They also wrote that future studies will be crucial in uncovering the actual disease mechanisms and learning whether the rotavirus infects the pancreas before the appearance of T1D. As Dr. Harrison explained, “While not conclusive, our latest study suggests that preventing rotavirus infection in Australian infants by vaccination may also reduce their risk of type 1 diabetes. We will be continuing this research to look more closely at the correlation, by comparing the health records of young children with or without type 1 diabetes.”
A freelance writer and editor based in the Chicago area, Gustaitis has a degree in journalism from Columbia University.