A health alert issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised health care providers about increases in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) throughout the Southeast that could signal the start of another bad season for the sometimes fatal virus.
Georgia and Florida in particular have recorded steep increases in RSV, which can be fatal for infants, young children and the elderly.
Hospitalizations caused by the virus in Georgia for children and infants under 4, increased from 2 hospitalizations per 100,000 population for the week ending Aug. 5 to 7 hospitalizations per 100,000 population for the week ending Aug. 19, something that was noted in the alert.
“We’re actually seeing RSV and flu starting to circulate,” CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen said during a event hosted by the Atlanta Press Club Wednesday. “This is pretty typical of what we see every year, and we expect that to go up over the course of the next number of months — which is why you’re going to hear me and others talk a lot about taking advantage of vaccines.”
Since last year’s outbreak of RSV strained hospitals and emergency rooms in the state, new protections have been approved by public health officials and can help with prevention this year. There are two new vaccines for adults 60 and older and an antibody treatment for infants and young children.
In what one CDC official called a “historic event,” the agency on Aug. 3 recommended a new immunization starting this fall to help protect all infants under 8 months and some older babies at increased risk of severe illness caused by RSV. The approval was for nirsevimab, under the trade name Beyfortus, a long-acting monoclonal antibody product, which has been shown to reduce the risk of both hospitalizations and healthcare visits for RSV in infants by about 80 percent.
In May, a vaccine for adults, the first of its kind against RSV, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for people over 60. The vaccine, called Arexvy, was made by the drug firm GSK and is now available. Additionally, Abrysvo, a vaccine created by Pfizer is available for use in adults over 60 and pregnant women during weeks 32 to 36 of their pregnancy. Both vaccines are single-dose shots.
RSV is a common respiratory virus and is the leading cause of hospitalizations for infants in the United States. According the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 58,000–80,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized with RSV each year. Each year, an estimated 100 to 300 children younger than 5 years of age die due to RSV.
In addition to infants and young children, older adults are also at risk for severe RSV infections and deaths. CDC says 60,000-120,000 older adults in the U.S. are hospitalized and 6,000-10,000 die from RSV infection.
“The exciting part is that this year we have a vaccination for RSV where we’ve never had one before. So, when I say we have more tools, that’s really exciting,” said Cohen on approved RSV preventions and treatments. “Those are the kind of things (to consider) as you think ahead to the holidays.”
In the United States, the annual RSV season has historically started in the fall and peaked in winter, but that pattern changed during the pandemic, according to the CDC. In 2022, RSV activity began in the summer, peaking across the United States in October and November, and rapidly declining by winter.
The CDC on Wednesday said the current increase in cases in the Southeast “suggests a continued shift towards the pre-pandemic seasonality of RSV, and could signal an increase in RSV activity nationally over the next 2-3 months.”
Despite these disruptions in timing, RSV activity has continued its traditional geographic pattern of starting in Florida and the Southeast before spreading to the north and west.
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