The Rotavirus vaccine offers protection against a severe form of diarrhoea that is fatal for babies.
The condition, known as rotavirus diarrhoea, is often accompanied by fever, vomiting and stomach pain. It causes dehydration and can led to death in severe cases.
Since its local introduction in 2014, the vaccine has played a key role in reducing the burden of the disease as well as associated deaths in the country. But there could be additional benefits.
New research published in the Scientific Reports Journal shows that the rotavirus vaccine may also forestall the development of Type 1 diabetes in children.
The condition is caused the body’s inability to produce insulin, which regulates sugar levels. This forces people with Type 1 diabetes to depend on injections of insulin aimed at controlling their sugar levels for life.
If the condition is not managed properly, affected people may develop problems with their kidneys, heart, eyes, blood vessels and nerves over time.
Despite the many adverse health effects linked to the disease, Type 1 diabetes has no known cause and is thus difficult to prevent.
However, based on results of the new study, scientists hope to solve this puzzle and make inroads into the discovery of effective approaches for combating the disease.
According to the research, getting fully vaccinated against rotavirus in the first months of life is associated with a lower risk of developing Type 1 diabetes later on.
Children who received all recommended doses of the rotavirus vaccine during the study had a 33 percent lower risk of being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Researchers from the University of Michigan used anonymous health insurance data from 1.5 million American children born before and after the modern rotavirus vaccine was introduced in 2006 in the United States.
In nearly all cases, the vaccine was free with no co-payment to the family of the infant.
Findings of the study showed that Type 1 diabetes risk was especially lower among children who received all three doses of the pentavalent form of the vaccine than those who received two doses of the monovalent version of the vaccine.
The former protects children against five types of the rotavirus bug, while the latter only offers cover against one type of rotavirus.
In fully vaccinated children, the incidence of Type 1 diabetes was 12.2 cases per 100,000 people per year. In the unvaccinated group, it was 20.6 per 100,000.
Children partially vaccinated (those that started the vaccine series but never finished it) did not have a lower risk of Type 1 diabetes.
Irrespective of the findings, the study’s authors caution against establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between rotavirus vaccination and Type 1 diabetes risk.
"This is an uncommon condition, so it takes large amounts of data to see any trends across a population," said Mary Rogers, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of internal medicine.
She stated: "It will take more time and analyses to confirm these findings. But we do see a decline in Type 1 diabetes in young children after the rotavirus vaccine was introduced."
The study findings are in line with those of another in Australia published earlier this year in the JAMA Paediatrics Journal.
It reported a 14 percent reduced risk of Type 1 diabetes among children in Australia after the rotavirus vaccine was introduced in the country.
The researchers investigated the number of Australian children diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes from 2000 to 2015.
They found that the condition in children (aged 0-4 years) declined from 2007. This is the year that the rotavirus vaccine was introduced as a routine infant vaccination in the country.
Following its roll-out, the country noticed a sharp decline in Type 1 diabetes cases — for the first time — since the 1980s. This is what piqued the interest of the scientists.
The results of both studies fit with laboratory studies showing that rotavirus attacks the same kind of pancreas cells that are affected in people with Type 1 diabetes.
It is therefore thought that a vaccine offering protection against rotavirus also guards against the condition in some way.
Researchers are yet to find out if the protection is short-term or long-lived.