A new vaccine joins the fall lineup
Do you remember seeing on the news last fall and winter that hospitals were running out of pediatric beds because a dangerous virus called RSV was making babies and young children very sick?
This year, there are new ways to protect not only children but also older adults from this potentially deadly illness.
RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus and, like the flu, it's a seasonal illness that crops up in the fall and winter. In most people, it causes mild cold-like symptoms that can be treated with over-the-counter medications and rest, and it usually clears up in a week or two.
However, it can be especially dangerous for the very young and those over 60. Here's what you need to know.
What is RSV, and when did it become a thing?
Respiratory syncytial virus has been on doctors' radar for decades; cases of it were first observed in the 1950s, but it leapt into the headlines last year, the first full winter since the pandemic kept a lot of us away from the office and school, or at least behind masks.
Dr. Scott Roberts of Yale School of Medicine noted that by November of last year, RSV infections were surging in children, and the RSV hospitalization rate for older adults was 10 times higher than usual. "More people were becoming infected, probably as a result of more in-person, maskless contact," he said.
The trouble really starts when RSV invades the lungs, causing lower respiratory tract disease, also known as LRTD. Vulnerable people, including those 65 and older, may develop life-threatening complications, such as pneumonia, and existing conditions, such as asthma and congestive heart failure, can worsen. Babies are susceptible because their immune systems are still immature.
New prevention options
According to an article in Scientific American, researchers started working on an RSV shot soon after the virus was identified decades ago. Typical for the times, they used a weakened form of the virus, but, when they tested it on children who had never had an RSV infection, some became ill and two youngsters died. These disastrous results stalled development of a vaccine for decades.
This time, scientists took the same approach that enabled the rapid development of a COVID vaccine, using the structure of the virus rather than the virus itself. But unlike the mRNA technique used with the COVID vaccines, RSV vaccines work by introducing an inactivated RSV protein into the body, stimulating the immune system to recognize the actual RSV virus if and when it encounters it to help prevent severe illness.
In clinical trials, vaccines by Pfizer and Glaxo Smith Kline were reported to be more than 80% effective in preventing serious illness in older people while causing very rare but serious side effects such as atrial fibrillation. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has gone on to recommend vaccines be given to pregnant women between 32 and 36 weeks of gestation to protect babies born during peak RSV season.
But should you get it?
The RSV vaccines are now widely available at pharmacies and we are being bombarded with TV commercials urging everyone over 60 to get it, particularly if you have underlying conditions such as a weakened immune system. The CDC stopped short of recommending it for everyone, however.
Doctors agree that the risks posed by a serious RSV infection are greater than those posed by the rare side effects, but there are some things we don't yet know, such as how long the immunity lasts and how effective it is in people 80 years of age or older.
I recommend you talk to your doctor before making an appointment. A grandparent who could be exposed to RSV by a grandchild who picked it up at school might want to get the vaccine, but if you're not around young children and are otherwise healthy, you may not.
If you decide to get the RSV vaccine, it's OK to get it at the same time as your flu and COVID shots.
We do know RSV is spread through contact, so you can keep everyone safer by frequent hand washing, not touching your face, avoiding contact with people who have cold-like symptoms, cleaning frequently touched surfaces such as doorknobs, and staying home when you're sick.
Come to think of it, that advice will help us all stay safer and healthier this fall and winter.
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). Her book, "How to Be a Healthcare Advocate for Yourself & Your Loved Ones," is available on Amazon. She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (312) 788-2640 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.