The First Rotavirus Vaccine and the Politics of Acceptable Risk


Jason L. Schwartz, Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, University of Pennsylvania, 3401 Market Street, Suite 320, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (email:


Context: Vaccination in the United States is a frequent source of controversy, with critics alleging failures by public health officials to adequately identify, monitor, and respond to risks associated with vaccines. In response to these charges, the case of RotaShield, a vaccine withdrawn in 1999 following confirmation of a serious adverse event associated with its use, is regularly invoked as evidence of the effectiveness of current vaccine safety activities.

Methods: This article examines the history of RotaShield, with particular attention paid to decision making regarding its use in the United States and internationally. I reviewed and analyzed federal advisory committee meeting transcripts, international conference reports, government and scientific publications, media coverage, and other primary and secondary source materials. I also conducted six semistructured interviews with former senior officials and advisory committee members at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who participated in decisions regarding the vaccine.

Findings: Decision making regarding RotaShield, including the ultimate withdrawal of its recommendation for use, was shaped significantly by government health officials’ concern for preserving public confidence in overall U.S. vaccination efforts amid several unrelated vaccine risk controversies ongoing at that time. This attention to public perception and external pressures occurred in tandem with the evaluation of the quantitative evidence regarding the magnitude and severity of the risk associated with the vaccine. The decisions made in the United States resulted in foreseen but unintended consequences for international use of the vaccine, including in nations where the profile of risks and potential benefits was dramatically different.

Conclusions: As enthusiasm for evidence-based decision making grows throughout medicine and public health, greater explicit attention should be directed to the processes by which decision makers and their expert advisers evaluate such evidence and translate it into regulation and policy by means of qualitative judgments.