The history of the discovery of rotavirus began in 1943 with Dr. Jacob Light and Dr. Horace Hodes. They were the first scientists to identify an infectious agent causing severe diarrhea in both children and livestock. Decades later, this pathogen was definitely determined to be rotavirus .
A second major step in the study of rotavirus was made in 1973 when Dr. Ruth Bishop, a noted Australian virologist, and her colleagues collected biopsies of intestinal tissue and fecal samples from children suffering from severe diarrhea [2,3]. They discovered that the causative agent was rotavirus.
Interestingly, one year later, an English virologist and physician named Dr. Thomas Henry Flewett named the pathogen studied by the abovementioned scientists “rotavirus.” He came up with this name after viewing the virus through an electron microscope and noticing that this tiny structure resembled a wheel. Since the Latin word for wheel is “rota”, the term “rotavirus” seemed apt. In fact, the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses officially recognized the name four years later.
In 1980, it was discovered that various distinct variants of the virus existed. A year later, scientists grew rotavirus isolates from humans using cell cultures derived from the kidneys of monkeys. This development was a major milestone that helped lead to the invention of effective vaccines against this viral infection during the mid-1980s.
In 1998, the first rotavirus vaccine was licensed for general use in the United States. Clinical trials conducted in the US, Finland, and Venezuela showed that the vaccine had no adverse side effects and was 80-100% effective in protecting against the infection. However, it was discontinued a year later when it was discovered that one in 12,000 infants who received the vaccine experienced obstructions in their bowels. This was a major setback, but future developments led to more promising treatments.
Two new vaccines were introduced in 2006 and were found to be safe and effective in children. In 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) included these rotavirus vaccines in all national immunization programs. As a result, many countries, including the US, have reported a significant reduction in rotavirus-related deaths and hospitalizations.
Currently, rotavirus vaccines are licensed for general use in over 100 countries. Non-profit international health organizations, including WHO, PATH, and the CDC, have partnered with many governments throughout the world, as well as various research institutions, to make rotavirus vaccines accessible and affordable to people living in low- and middle-income countries .