Rotavirus vaccine may protect against type 1 diabetes

Monday, 28 January, 2019

Rotavirus vaccine may protect against type 1 diabetes

A drop in the number of young children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes could be associated with the introduction of routine rotavirus vaccination of Australian infants, according to scientists from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI).

Type 1 diabetes is a serious, lifelong autoimmune condition in which the body’s immune system destroys cells in the pancreas that produce insulin — a hormone that controls the level of glucose in the blood. The rotavirus vaccine, meanwhile, is routinely given to Australian infants aged two and four months to protect them against a severe, potentially life-threatening form of diarrhoea.

By investigating the number of Australian children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes each year from 2000–2015, the research team observed that after 2007 — the year that rotavirus vaccine was introduced as a routine infant vaccination — the rate of type 1 diabetes decreased in children aged 0–4 years. This is the first time the rate of type 1 diabetes in young children in Australia has fallen since the 1980s.

“The significant decrease in type 1 diabetes that we detected in young children after 2007 was not seen in older children aged 5–14,” said study lead Dr Kirsten Perrett, from the MCRI. “This suggests the young children could have been exposed to a protective factor that didn’t impact older children.

“We observed the decline in the rate of type 1 diabetes in children born after 2007 coincided with the introduction of the oral rotavirus vaccine onto the Australian National Immunisation Program in 2007.”

While not conclusively linking the rotavirus vaccine with protection against type 1 diabetes, the discovery builds on earlier research suggesting natural rotavirus infection may be a risk factor for type 1 diabetes. That’s according to WEHI’s Professor Len Harrison, senior author on the study.

“Twenty years ago our team revealed an association between the appearance of immune markers of type 1 diabetes in children and rotavirus infection,” Prof Harrison said. “Subsequent studies in laboratory models suggested rotavirus infection of pancreatic cells can trigger an immune attack against the insulin-producing cells — similar to what occurs in type 1 diabetes.

“While not conclusive, our latest study suggests that preventing rotavirus infection in Australian infants by vaccination may also reduce their risk of type 1 diabetes. We will be continuing this research to look more closely at the correlation, by comparing the health records of young children with or without type 1 diabetes.

“At this stage we don’t yet know whether the reduction in type 1 diabetes is a permanent effect or transient, and it may only be relevant to Australian children.”

The study has been published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Image caption: Type 1 diabetes is caused by the immune destruction of insulin-producing cells in the islets of the pancreas (shown in purple). Image credit: WEHI-TV, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI).

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