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Rotavirus infection linked to diabetes?

Rotavirus is a major cause of infant mortality in India, with between 90,000 and 153,000 child deaths due to the infection every year. However, recent data may suggest that even those who survive the infection may have life-altering conditions.


Former Union Health Minister J. P. Nadda administers a dose of the rotavirus vaccine. Image credit: Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (GODL-India) [GODL-India (]. This file is a copyrighted work of the Government of India, licensed under the Government Open Data License – India (GODL). This file or its source was published by Press Information Bureau on behalf of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India under the ID 99075 and CNR 93693. (direct link)
Researchers from the University of Melbourne have found that rotavirus infection might play a role in the development of type 1 diabetes. The study found that, after the introduction of the vaccinations against the disease into Australia, the incidence of type 1 diabetes among children under the age of four fell by around fifteen percent.

“Vaccination against rotavirus may have the additional benefit in some children of being a primary prevention for type 1 diabetes,” said the study’s lead author Leonard C. Harrison.

While the concept that correlation does not equal causation can be applied, further evidence backs up these claims. Both human and animal studies have previously linked the potential for rotavirus infection to cause diabetes, with this further study giving further credibility to the claims.

The study highlighted molecular evidence supporting their hypothesis and pointed out the association between rotavirus infection and serum islet autoantibodies. Rotavirus infection can, in rare cases, cause acute pancreatitis. This alone proves that at least to some degree, the rotavirus can cause severe issues within the pancreas. 

The study suggests that as rotavirus can cause inflammation within the pancreas, this could increase the likelihood of immune response in the pancreas directed at one’s own cells, as is the case in type 1 diabetes. Thus, any child with a genetic vulnerability to diabetes may be more at risk of developing the condition following an infection by the rotavirus than had they not been infected.

With Indian’s noted to have genes common among the population that create a genetic predisposition to diabetes, there may be more among the population that hold this genetic risk than in the Australian study. As a result, rotavirus may be one of the key risk factors to diabetes in India.

While elimination of the rotavirus would not simultaneously eliminate diabetes within the country, it could hugely reduce disease incidence. The announcement that the Union Health Ministry has included the rotavirus vaccine among its Universal Immunisation Programme, therefore, comes as a welcome announcement.

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