As winter approaches, health experts are warning parents to watch for signs of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) in their children in addition to colds, flu and the ever-present COVID-19, According to the CDC, RSV cases in the U.S. rose from 1,245 in September to nearly 8,000 in October.
The risk of contracting RSV is higher for premature babies – something of particular concern for African-American women, whose rate of preterm births was about 50 percent higher than the rate among white or Hispanic women in 2020.
Leading pharmaceutical company Pfizer wants to give new moms some peace of mind. The company is currently testing a vaccine candidate for expectant mothers that helps protect their babies from RSV after birth.
The vaccine was 82 percent effective against severe illness for babies through the first 90 days of life and 69 percent effective through the first six months. The company plans to submit its vaccine to the FDA for approval by the end of the year. If it’s approved, it could be the first maternal vaccine available to help prevent this respiratory illness in infants.
The Root spoke with Dr. Iona Munjal – Director, Clinical Research & Development at Pfizer and Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist, and Dr. Hasra Snaggs – Associate Director, Medical Monitor, VRD at Pfizer, and Obstetrician Specialist about the work they are doing to help prevent the spread of RSV to the most vulnerable Americans.
According to the CDC, symptoms of RSV for most people can include runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing and wheezing. But the symptoms in young infants, which can include irritability, decreased activity, and breathing difficulties can be harder to recognize.
Most healthy adults and infants with RSV won’t need to spend any time in the hospital. But it is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children younger than age one. It’s also the leading cause of hospitalization for infants.
Dr. Munjal points out that although RSV has been around for decades, it is something we are currently powerless against. But she is optimistic about the efficacy of the vaccine. “I know that it’s never nice to hear about babies and hospitals, but it’s nice that there is an intersection between increased awareness around it and the possibility of some real solutions,” she says.
Munjal links the recent buzz about RSV to an overall increased awareness of respiratory illness due to COVID. “Before, in the winter months, you either had a cold or the flu. And when COVID came around, it became important to distinguish COVID from the flu,” she said. “As hospitals are testing for viruses, a lot of those tests are really comprehensive. All of a sudden, we’re finding out that RSV is prevalent.”
She adds that RSV essentially disappeared at the height of the pandemic, because people were masking. But as more masks come off, everyone is at risk. “The absence of RSV for a couple of years has made us extremely susceptible. So all of us, unfortunately, are probably getting it this year,” Dr. Munjal said.
Dr. Hasra Snaggs hopes informing expectant mothers about the risks of RSV will encourage more of them to take the vaccine as soon as it is approved for use. “RSV is a leading cause of global infant respiratory disease, so awareness among expectant mothers of the potential risks and consequences is growing. But it’s not widely known. That’s why education is important to acceptance and uptake of the vaccine,” she said.
In the meantime, both doctors encourage parents to model good hand hygiene with their children, using songs and games to make it fun to keep clean.
“RSV spreads by touch, so it’s not just about the masking, it’s about hand washing too,” Dr. Munjal said. “As pediatricians, we emphasize hand washing and not touching your face.”