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New RSV vaccines could make a big difference this cold and flu season, health officials say

A black-and-white close-up image of a virus
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Last year, New Hampshire hospitals saw a surge of young children with the respiratory illness RSV. Now, local health care workers and state officials say new vaccines could make a big difference heading into another cold-weather virus season.

“For the first time, we have safe and updated vaccines to protect us for all three winter and fall respiratory illnesses – COVID-19, flu and RSV,” said Patricia Tilley, director of New Hampshire’s Division of Public Health Services.

RSV – short for respiratory syncytial virus – circulates every fall. For most people, it causes a mild cold. But it can be more risky for infants and older adults. It’s the leading cause of hospitalization for infants in the U.S.

This year, federal regulators approved the first RSV vaccines for people over 60. People who are pregnant can also now get vaccinated between their 32nd and 36th weeks, in order to protect their child against RSV.

There’s also a new monoclonal antibody treatment for infants up to 8 months, as well as children up to 19 months who are at higher risk for severe disease. The shot boosts immunity against RSV through what’s known as “passive immunization” – providing virus-fighting antibodies directly, rather than spurring the body to produce its own antibodies as a traditional vaccine does.

Martha Wassell, the director of infection prevention at Wentworth-Douglass Hospital in Dover, said older children typically have some protection against RSV already, from being exposed to the virus in a previous season.

But for the very youngest children, she said these new immunizations could be a game-changer.

“Hundreds in the U.S. in this age group die of RSV every year,” she said. “And now we have made it a preventable disease.”

She encouraged new and expecting parents to talk to their doctors about their options.

Dr. Michael McLeod, the associate chief clinical officer for Concord Hospital Primary Care, said the RSV vaccines are also important for older adults.

“We know that there's an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 deaths a year from RSV in adults older than 65,” he said. “So having a preventative vaccine, especially for individuals at high risk, can be an important tool in helping to prevent illness.”

He said the CDC recommends that people older than 60 talk to their doctors about whether an RSV vaccine makes sense for them, based on their underlying health issues and other factors.

Major insurers — including Aetna, Harvard Pilgrim and UnitedHealthcare — said they are covering RSV vaccines and antibody treatments in full, as preventive care. New Hampshire Medicaid is also covering the shots. Many pharmacies in the state are now offering RSV vaccines.

State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan told health care providers last week that RSV activity nationally was still low but starting to tick up – consistent with a typical season, where RSV infections begin increasing around October.

Wassell said people who are eligible should talk to their health care providers sooner rather than later, and get a vaccine if appropriate.

“I recommend not waiting a day longer than you need to,” she said. “We are into the viral respiratory season.”

Paul Cuno-Booth covers health and equity for NHPR. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Keene Sentinel, where he wrote about police accountability, local government and a range of other topics. He can be reached at pcuno-booth@nhpr.org.

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