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The RSV Breakthrough: First-ever Vaccine for Prevention of Highly Contagious Virus in Older Adults

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a common and highly contagious virus that affects the respiratory tract. It’s especially severe in infants and older adults, often requiring hospitalization. In Canada, RSV causes yearly outbreaks of respiratory tract disease, usually starting in late fall and running through to early spring.

Despite being a widespread health concern, it wasn’t until recently that significant strides were made in preventing this disease in older adults.

The breakthrough

In August 2023, Health Canada approved the first vaccine for prevention of RSV-associated lower respiratory tract disease in adults aged ≥60 years. Previous to this, there were two antibody-containing vaccines that were given to infants only, but there was nothing to protect older adults. This vaccine is cause for celebration, as it should prevent significant hospitalizations, or worse, in those over 60.

For most people, the virus causes cold-like symptoms, but for older adults and adults with medical conditions (such as diabetes or chronic heart and lung disease) it can lead to more serious infection and complications such as pneumonia, hospitalization and even death. Besides being at a higher risk due to medical conditions, older adults are also at an increased risk due to immunosenescence, which is the natural decrease in immune function with age.

How common is RSV?

The estimates of how often RSV occurs in older adults vary widely and are affected by the fact that tests for RSV are not often done in this population group. However, in the US, RSV infection is estimated to lead to 60,000–160,000 hospitalizations and 6,000–10,000 deaths annually among adults aged ≥65 years. A recent study showed that RSV is an underrecognized cause of illness in older adults in high income countries. In 2019, there were approximately 5.2 million cases, 470,000 hospitalizations, and 33,000 in-hospital deaths in ≥60-year-old adults in high-income countries, including Canada.

The vaccine: dose and effectiveness

The vaccine (Arexvy) is recommended as a single dose which provides protection for at least 2 years. Currently, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest additional doses.

Current studies suggest that one dose of the vaccine is 82.6% effective. Its efficacy is even higher in those who are at higher risk. For example, for individuals aged 70-79, the efficacy is 93.8%, and individuals with one or more co-occurring illnesses, the efficacy is 94.6%.

Studies indicate the vaccine is well-tolerated, with reports of short-term soreness at the injection site and temporary fatigue.

Who should consider getting this vaccine?

Adults aged ≥60 years at highest risk for severe RSV infection include those with:

  • Chronic heart or lung disease (asthma, COPD)
  • Cardiovascular diseases such as congestive heart failure and coronary artery disease
  • Weakened immune systems (due to a medical condition or immunosuppressive medications
  • Other underlying medical conditions such as:
    • diabetes mellitus
    • neurologic or neuromuscular conditions
    • kidney disorders
    • liver disorders
    • hematologic disorders
  • Individuals living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
  • Individuals who are frail or of advanced age.

    What can we expect this flu season?

    Harrison Healthcare physicians and nurses will offer RSV vaccination as supply is available to adults aged ≥60 years who are at the highest risk. Please reach out to your Harrison Care Team to schedule your vaccine.

    Promising news ahead

    A second RSV vaccine has been approved for use in the United States, but not yet in Canada. Your Harrison Healthcare team will keep you updated as more information is released, and we look forward to future innovations in medical science.


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