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Rochester doctors say an RSV vaccine would help our overwhelmed hospitals

respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) virus
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A scientific image of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Children have always been more at risk from respiratory syncytial virus infections than COVID-19, say medical experts. But this year it's especially bad, with a national surge in RSV cases overwhelming hospitals, and scientists are prioritizing RSV vaccines.

Dr. Mary Caserta, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at University of Rochester Medical Center, says plans to develop a vaccine aren't new, but, "People just haven't shown a lot of interest in them."

Caserta said the current RSV surge is due to the dropping of COVID-19 safety precautions. And that surge - plus promising research data - have caused interest in the vaccine to spike too.

Earlier this week, Pfizer submitted data to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from its RSV vaccine trial of approximately 7,400 pregnant women. The trial tested how immunity was transmitted from parent to newborn after birth.

The results showed that roughly 80% immunity was passed on from mom to baby and lasted through the first 3 months of life. Immunity dropped to 70% as the baby approached 6 months of age.

Caserta says RSV is the number one reason babies get readmitted to the hospital in their first year of life, so these results are game changing. The benefits are greatest for people who lack access to quality medical care.

“In the developed world we’re talking about preventing a large number of hospitalizations," she says. "In the developing world, we're talking about saving lives.”

In March, Pfizer’s RSV vaccine was granted breakthrough status by the FDA, which speeds up the review process, which includes approval from the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Committee on Immunization.

“So perhaps, you know, in a few months we'll have all of those boxes checked,” says Rochester Regional Health’s infectious disease specialist Dr. Emil Lesho. He adds that having another vaccine this time of the year, when viruses tend to circulate, will also help reduce the stress on the healthcare system.

“A little bit of a help here with RSV, combined with a little bit of a help from flu vaccine, every little bit of prevention adds up,” Lesho says.

Racquel Stephen is a health and environment reporter. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.