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Circulating Internet Message Warns of Rotavirus Outbreak

Circulating message warns parents that there is currently an outbreak of potentially deadly rotavirus.

rotavirus outbreak


Brief Analysis
The message makes no mention of where in the world the alleged outbreak is occurring. This oversight has caused considerable confusion. The message probably refers to a deadly outbreak of diarrhoea that has hit residents of Durban, South Africa in recent months. Preliminary investigations of the outbreak indicate that it may be the result of rotavirus.

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Warning all parents with children age 5 and under. There's a rota-virus outbreak, if your child starts vomiting a watery substance get them to a dr or hospital asap it can be deadly. Please share. Guys this is serious its on the news too. Your broadcast can save a family.

Detailed Analysis

This message, which is circulating via SMS, social media posts, and email, warns recipients that a deadly outbreak of rotavirus is currently taking place. The message advises parents of young children to take them to a doctor or hospital if they start vomiting a watery substance.

Unfortunately, the warning message makes no mention of where in the world the rotavirus outbreak is supposedly occurring. Given that the message has quickly circulated all around the globe, this lack of location references has lead to considerable confusion. Commentators in various jurisdictions, including health authorities in Barbados, have felt compelled to reassure their citizens that no rotavirus outbreak is occurring in their regions.

The warning message is probably referencing a recent outbreak of severe diarrhoea in Durban, South Africa. Preliminary investigations by South African health authorities indicate that the diarrhoea is likely the result of rotavirus. In a July 8, 2013 report, South African news outlet, Time Live notes:  

A preliminary investigation into the cause of the severe diarrhoea that claimed the lives of two children last month has revealed that the rotavirus has spread through the city, health officials said.

"During the investigation, the team confirmed that the eThekwini region has an outbreak of diarrhoea. More than half of the samples collected tested positive for rotavirus," municipal spokesman Thabo Mofokeng said.

According to the World Health Organisation, rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhoeal disease and dehydration in infants and young children worldwide.

The report also notes that investigations are continuing to make certain that rotavirus is really the cause of the outbreak.

Thus, the warning is worth heeding, at least for residents of the Durban region.

That said, the warning is also potentially misleading. Vomiting is only one of the presenting symptoms for rotavirus. Information about the illness published by the Mayo Clinic explains:

A rotavirus infection usually starts with a fever and vomiting, followed by three to eight days of watery diarrhea. The infection can cause abdominal pain as well. In adults who are otherwise healthy, a rotavirus infection may cause only mild signs and symptoms — or none at all.
Mayo Clinic advises parents to seek medical help if a child:

While the Internet can be a useful and rapid vector for alerting people about disease outbreaks, it is important that any messages about such an outbreak contain accurate details and clearly state where the outbreak is occurring, when it started, and where to access current information. Vague and misleading warning messages like the one above can be counterproductive and cause unnecessary fear and alarm in unaffected communities.

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Last updated: July 17, 2013
First published: July 17, 2013
By Brett M. Christensen
About Hoax-Slayer

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