Last year, we all became familiar with a new phrase: “tripledemic.” As fall 2022 turned to winter 2023, flu, COVID-19 and RSV converged simultaneously, inundating clinics and hospitals with sick patients. While individuals could get vaccinated to help stop the spread of flu and COVID-19, no such option for RSV was available. That’s changed.
This year, we have a new tool to help protect vulnerable populations from RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved an RSV vaccine.
What is RSV?
According to Mayo Clinic, RSV causes infections of the lungs and respiratory tract. It’s so common that most children have been infected with the virus by age 2. The virus can also infect adults.
In adults as well as older, healthy children, RSV symptoms are mild and typically mimic the common cold. Individuals in these groups usually require only self-care measures to relieve any discomfort.
Mild symptoms of RSV include:
- Congested or runny nose
- Dry cough
- Low-grade fever
- Sore throat
RSV can cause severe infection in some people, including babies 12 months and younger. Premature infants are at increased risk. Other groups at risk include older adults, people with heart and lung disease, and anyone with a weak immune system.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 58,000 to 80,000 children under 5 years of age — most of them infants — are hospitalized each year nationwide due to RSV infection. Some of those require oxygen, intravenous fluids, or mechanical ventilation (a machine to help with breathing). Each year, an estimated 100 to 300 children younger than 5 years of age die due to RSV.
Severe RSV symptoms include:
- Severe cough
- Rapid breathing or difficulty breathing — the person may prefer to sit up rather than lie down
- Bluish color of the skin due to lack of oxygen
In infants, severe symptoms include:
- Short, shallow and rapid breathing
- Struggling to breathe — chest muscles and skin pull inward with each breath
- Poor feeding
- Unusual tiredness (lethargy)
Who Should Get Vaccinated?
Health experts recommend the vaccine for three main groups.
Infants Ages 8 Months and Younger
In addition to infants ages 8 months and younger, doctors may recommend the vaccine for some older babies at increased risk for becoming seriously ill from RSV. This group would typically include babies between the ages of 8 months and 19 months.
To maximize protection for babies after birth, the CDC recommends seasonal administration of one dose of RSV vaccine for pregnant people during weeks 32 through 36 of pregnancy. The vaccine is recommended for people who fall into that group during RSV season — which can vary but typically runs between September and January.
When someone gets an RSV vaccine, their body responds by making a protein that protects against the virus that causes RSV. The process takes about two weeks. When a pregnant person gets an RSV vaccine, their protective proteins (called antibodies) also pass to their baby.
Babies who are born at least two weeks after their mother gets an RSV vaccine are protected at birth, when infants are at the highest risk of severe RSV disease. The vaccine can reduce a baby’s risk of being hospitalized from RSV by 57% in the first six months after birth, according to the CDC.
Some Adults 60 and Older
Those 60 and older should talk with their health care provider about whether RSV vaccination is right for them. Health care providers may recommend vaccination for the following populations:
- Those with a weakened immune system from illness or from medications they take
- Individuals with a chronic medical condition such as heart or lung disease
- Nursing home residents
These groups might be at higher risk of severe RSV disease, and an RSV vaccine could help prevent serious illness, according to the CDC.
How to Get Vaccinated
ThedaCare is offering the RSV vaccine to eligible populations. Follow these guidelines:
- Pregnant patients should talk to their physician about when it’s best to receive the vaccine.
- Babies ages 8 months and younger, as well as eligible babies between the ages of 8 months and 19 months, should get immunized. However, the nationwide rollout of the immunization, Beyfortus, has hit roadblocks. ThedaCare will provide an update when the immunization becomes available.
- Adults ages 60 and older should ask their health care provider if they should receive the vaccine. Those eligible between the ages of 60 and 65 can receive the vaccine at their primary care clinic. Those 65 and older who are on Medicare should receive the vaccine at a retail pharmacy because payment is covered through Medicare Part D.
“We encourage all eligible populations to receive the vaccine,” says Dr. Zachary Baeseman, Associate Chief Medical Officer and Family Medicine Physician with ThedaCare. “It offers an important tool to help vulnerable groups avoid severe respiratory illness this winter.”