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This week, federal health officials have recommended adding two new vaccines to the regimen of childhood immunizations. Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now suggest that all children between ages two and five get flu shots. The other vaccine they're recommending is less familiar. It's an oral vaccine against rotavirus. Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe gastrointestinal illnesses in infants and young children. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports:

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

Rotavirus causes severe diarrhea, vomiting, fever and dehydration. In developing nations, where medical facilities may not be readily accessible, the infection can be harsh and deadly. In this country, most children recover at home. Even so, CDC epidemiologist Umesh Parashar says there can be severe outcomes.

Dr. UMESH PARASHAR (Epidemiologist, Centers for Disease Control): Including more than 400,000 physician office visits. More than 200,000 emergency room visits. And a large number of hospitalizations estimated at about 55,000 to 70,000 each year. And it also causes the death about 20 to 40 children in the U.S. each year.

NEIGHMOND: The vaccine is a live virus in a liquid administered by mouth. Three doses are recommended at two, four and six months of age. Parashar says that in clinical trials, the vaccine proved highly effective.

Dr. PARASHAR: It was 74 percent efficacious in preventing any case of rotavirus disease and 98 percent efficacious against the more severe cases. It was clearly a vaccine that was shown to be effective.

NEIGHMOND: Parashar says pretty much every child in the world contracts the virus repeatedly before the age of five. In the US that costs about $300 million dollars to treat the disease. That includes doctor visits, medications and visits to the ER. And another $600 million, says Parashar, when you include indirect costs like parents taking off work to care for sick children.

But the vaccine faces some hurdles. First its perception of safety. This vaccine's predecessor was taken off the market five years ago, when it was found to cause a serious bowel obstruction. The new vaccine called Rotatech was studied in thousands of infants. Pediatrician and Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Joseph Bocchini was part of that trial.

Dr. JOSEPH BOCCHINI (Pediatrician/Infectious Disease Specialist): This vaccine was studied in a trial of over 71,000 children to attempt to look for the possibility that the vaccine, as previous vaccine, might be associated with this complication.

NEIGHMOND: It was not. Bocchini says he's confident of this vaccine's safety. Even so, researchers will follow newly immunized infants to check for any rare side effects. And while some parents may balk at another vaccine added to the recommended regimen, Bocchini says parents should consider another point of view.

Dr. BOCCHINI: We're really living in an age where we have an opportunity to prevent infection. And so the number of vaccines as they increase, really increase the chance that their child will live a healthier life and be less likely to develop a serious illness.

One of the problems that parents face is that because of the success of the vaccine program, we don't see as much of the severe diseases and consequences that the vaccines now prevent.

NEIGHMOND: Like measles, chicken pox, whooping cough and polio. Problems that cause far more sickness and death in the developing world than in the U.S. The new vaccine is expensive, about $60 a dose. Over $180 total. If the Secretary of Health and Human Services agrees with the CDC Advisory Committee, and officially recommends the new vaccine, that will likely pave the way for private insurance coverage. Federal programs for low-income children would have to be expanded to cover the vaccine's cost. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can learn what the CDC is doing to monitor the new vaccine safety at our website NPR.org.

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