An influential organization representing pediatricians across Canada has issued a call for all infants to be vaccinated against rotavirus.
The Canadian Paediatric Society, which announced the recommendation Monday, is also urging governments across the country to begin funding the rotavirus vaccine.
The recommendation is being made to help protect infants from contracting rotavirus, a nasty bug that is the most common cause of diarrhea in babies and children. Up to 600 children afflicted with rotavirus are hospitalized in Canada each year, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society. It's a major cause of illness and death in developing countries.
But the call for a new vaccine to be added to the immunization schedule for children could be met with skepticism from some parents. A backlash against vaccines has been brewing in recent years, typically over fears they can lead to harmful side effects.
Although many of those fears, such as the link between vaccines and autism, have repeatedly been proven false by rigorous scientific studies, many parents remain wary of vaccines, a trend that came to the forefront last year amid the debate over whether to vaccinate children against H1N1 influenza.
But Joan Robinson, a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society's infectious disease and immunization committee who is also an infectious diseases physician in Edmonton, said parents shouldn't put their children in harm's way because of concerns vaccines could be a theoretical health threat.
"How can getting a low dose of a virus that's made to be weak or wimpy be more dangerous than actually getting the infection?" Dr. Robinson said. "In every single case the benefit of the vaccine is thought to be way greater than the risk."
It doesn't help that there have been some safety issues identified with rotavirus vaccines in the past.
In late September, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated the label on a rotavirus vaccine called Rotarix after a study linked it to a slight increase in the risk of intussusception, an intestinal condition that can lead to blockage. Regulators said the risk would translate into a maximum of four additional hospitalizations for every 100,000 infants within 31 days of receiving the first dose of the vaccine.
Health Canada also began investigating rotavirus vaccines earlier this year after contaminants were found in the two approved for sale here, Rotarix and RotaTeq. The department said porcine circovirus, a virus commonly found in pigs that could be a contaminant of an enzyme from pig pancreas, were detected in the vaccines. Although the virus is not known to cause illness in humans, Health Canada said the labels on rotavirus vaccines have been updated to warn about the presence of porcine circovirus.
Another major challenge stands in the way of mass vaccination against rotavirus: Many parents have never heard of it.
A 2007 survey of more than 800 mothers conducted on behalf of the Canadian Institute of Child Health found that more than half had never heard of rotavirus, while one in six reported their child had experienced symptoms of rotavirus in the past.
Yet nearly all children will contract the virus in their first few years of life, Dr. Robinson said.
"I think we need to emphasize that certainly for this one, if they don't get the vaccine they 100 per cent virtually will actually get rotavirus," she said.