We all know about cold and flu season. But what about RSV season?
"So RSV is a single-stranded RNA virus. And basically it’s a virus that can infect persons of any age. Most people, you know healthy adults, will only have an upper respiratory tract infection. However, at certain ages and with certain health conditions, you can actually have more severe symptoms," said Dr. Mariam Aziz, a pediatric infectious disease special at Rush University Medical Center.
Those severe symptoms usually affect a person’s lungs and their breathing. Most often in infants, toddlers and seniors.
"About 20% of all kids in their first year of life will get lower respiratory infection with RSV. Between 60,000 and 80,000 kids under five are hospitalized every year with RSV," said Dr. Allison Bartlett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University of Chicago Medicine.
Bartlett adds approximately 2% of all infants are also hospitalized every year due to an RSV infection and around 200 children die from it, making RSV the most common reason a child is admitted to the hospital.
As for seniors, the statistics are even more alarming.
"There’s around 150,000 to 180,000 hospitalizations every year and about 14,000 deaths. So that’s pretty important in terms of a virus causing outcomes like that," Aziz said.
Until now, doctors had little to no way to treat RSV.
"There really are no other medicines we can give it. It’s watchful waiting, and it’s a really hard thing for parents and health care workers to watch a child struggle to breathe," says Bartlett.
Now, the Food and Drug Administration has approved two vaccines for people age 60 and over.
As for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Bartlett says it didn’t issue a blanket recommendation for all seniors to get an RSV vaccine, but instead recommended "shared decision-making" where doctors and patients decide together if an RSV vaccine is best for them.
"So what we have coming, hopefully soon for the infants, is a monoclonal antibody. So instead of teaching the body’s immune system how to fight off an infection, we actually give the injection of the antibodies themselves," Bartlett says.
The CDC is now recommending nirsevimab for babies under eight months old and for some older ones too. Bartlett says the biggest challenge now is making sure it’s available to all infants.
"It could significantly impact the rate of doctor visits, hospitalizations and deaths from RSV," says Bartlett.
As for the impact the two new vaccines would have on seniors’ health, that depends on how many decide to get the vaccine and also have access to it.
"RSV is the leading cause, thought to be the leading cause, of death from an infectious disease aside from malaria. And so globally, if there is access to these important drugs, it could be a game changer," according to Aziz.
The approval of these new vaccines and therapeutic treatment come at a critical time.
After two years of cases increasing following the pandemic and then the "perfect storm" of RSV, the flu and COVID all hitting at the same time last year, Chicago doctors are now bracing themselves to see what this year’s RSV season will look like.
"Usually it started in November or December and lasted through about March," Bartlett says.
Then in 2021, doctors unexpectedly saw it starting up in July or August and last year, it started around September.
"So it’s a little bit in flux whether it’s going to be August, September, or October this year. We are anxiously awaiting," she added.
Another new development doctors are excited about is the FDA has just approved one of the vaccines for seniors to be given to pregnant women as well. It will allow them to develop an immune response to RSV and pass it on to their babies.
Once the approvals have been finalized, doctors anticipate these vaccines and therapeutic treatment will be available this fall.