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Rotavirus vaccine protective against type 1 diabetes, study suggests

Study suggests that rotavirus vaccine may be protective against type 1 diabetes.

The Rotavirus is one of the most common causes of severe diarrhea in infants and children aged 6 to 24 months. Symptoms usually begin with a fever and vomiting, and children start experiencing severe diarrhea within 24 to 48 hours. A major consequence and concern for those affected is the dehydration that may result. According to the Canadian Paediatric Society, almost all Canadian children who are not vaccinated will have at least one episode of rotavirus-linked diarrhea.

Unlike type 2 diabetes, type 1 diabetes is not something that is brought on by poor lifestyle and diet, and it is not preventable. The disease is characterized by a pancreas that is unable to produce any insulin and therefore, cannot aid the body in controlling the level of glucose (sugar) in the blood. The cause of type 1 diabetes is unknown.

A significant decrease in rotavirus cases was observed after the implementation of rotavirus vaccination. However, a global 15% decrease of type 1 diabetes was also observed and it was hypothesized that the rotavirus vaccine may be the reason for the decline. In an article published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, lead researcher Leonard C. Harrison discussed the various factors and data statistics that sought to establish the correlation between the two.

Harrison began by analyzing the association between islet antibodies (antibodies found in the pancreas) and rotavirus infections. In a study of 360 children, he found that some children with elevated islet antibodies also showed elevated rotavirus antibodies. Though premature in nature, Harrison believed this to be significant in proving his hypothesis.

Building upon previous research that showed the rotavirus to infect the islet cells of NOD mice and other species (which subsequently resulted in diabetes), Harrison infected mouse islets in-vitro with the rotavirus and monitored the reaction. Initially, the pancreatic islet cells had suffered in size, regularity, and insulin production but showed no traces of the rotavirus. However, in a few days, the rotavirus infection was present and induced mild hyperglycemia – an indicator of type 1 diabetes. Furthermore, Harrison and his team identified the timing of the infection to be an important factor in the development of type 1 diabetes. If infected during the neonatal period, the rotavirus actually showed the prevention or decrease of type 1 diabetes development. However, infections in older ages or in individuals already with the diagnosis accelerated the development of the disease.

To solidify their hypothesis, Harrison and his team analyzed population-level data that showed the incidence of type 1 diabetes before and after the rotavirus vaccine was introduced. In a 16-year period of publicly available data, there was a 15% decrease of type 1 diabetes cases after the rotavirus vaccine was introduced. Further support from another study’s analysis, a 41% decrease of type 1 diabetes was identified in U.S. children that had the rotavirus vaccination as opposed to those who did not.

Harrison stresses that this study is premature in its nature, and cannot yet firmly establish a causal relationship between rotavirus infections and type 1 diabetes. However, it does provide insight on the mechanisms behind each disease, and introduces future possibilities to potentially reduce the prevalence of type 1 diabetes. According to the author, “Vaccination against rotavirus may have the additional benefit in some children of being a primary prevention for type 1 diabetes.”

Written by Stephanie Tsang


Harrison, L. C., Perrett, K. P., Jachno, K., Nolan, T. M., & Honeyman, M. C. (2019). Does rotavirus turn on type 1 diabetes? PLOS Pathogens15(10). doi: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1007965

Harrison, L. (2019, October 10). Rotavirus infection may turn on type 1 diabetes. Retrieved from

Rotavirus – Caring for Kids. (2015, August). Retrieved from

Rotavirus – Caring for Kids. (2015, August). Retrieved from

Image by Angelo Esslinger from Pixabay



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