Rotaviruses are the most important cause of severe gastro-enteritis in infants and young children. However, the determinants of protective immunity are poorly understood. Human immunity to rotavirus can be acquired passively or actively. It may be humoral or cell-mediated, protective or non-protective, homotypic or heterotypic and mucosal or systemic, or any combination of these. Mucosal immunity is protective against rotavirus illness, but not against infection, whereas systemic immunity reflects exposure, but probably has little if any role in protection. Both local and cell-mediated immunity are likely to be important in protection. However, there is no agreement as to a reliable surrogate marker of small intestinal protective immunity, and little is known about small intestinal cell-mediated immunity in man, especially infants. Passive mucosal immunity, but not systemic immunity, may contribute to protection in breast-fed infants, and in those at increased risk of serious illness who have been given oral immunoglobulin, either as prophylaxis or therapeutically. Animal and adult studies may have only limited relevance to those who are at greatest risk of serious illness. However, it is probably from such studies that hypotheses about small intestinal cell-mediated immunity in the protection of infants against rotavirus infection and illness will come. The determinants of susceptibility to serious rotavirus infection in man remain unclear, and this continues to hinder vaccine research.


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