Fairfax Media | 29 October 2013
Until 40 years ago the cause of one of the most common types of gastro was a mystery. But the consequences of infection were obvious.
In developed and developing countries alike, babies and young children died from acute diarrhoea, which was sometimes called cholera infantum.
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute microbiologist Ruth Bishop explains:
It was similar to cholera in that there was a huge outpouring of fluid and electrolytes. And it’s that loss that put the child’s life at risk.
It was Professor Bishop’s pioneering work ”following the clues” as she described it on Monday that led to her discovering the cause of the potentially fatal infection, which she first cited in a black and white electron microscope image in 1973.
Using samples from Royal Children’s Hospital patients, Professor Bishop and colleagues from Melbourne University were able to link the damaged cells observed in the lining of the gut with the acute gastro symptoms that left children dangerously dehydrated and at risk of death.
”Children can’t lose more than 10 per cent of their body weight in fluid without being close to death,” she said. Her identification of the culprit – a new virus called rotavirus because of the round shape of virus particles – resulted in global control of the virus via two oral vaccines now licensed in 100 countries.
In Australia, the number of children with the condition admitted to hospital fell from 10,000 a year before the vaccine’s arrival in 2007 to about 2300 now.
Four decades after the discovery was published in The Lancet, Professor Bishop became the first woman to be awarded the prestigious $50,000 CSL Florey Medal.