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Texas has high rates of RSV in kids. A doctor says a new vaccine can help older adults.

About 177,000 adults 65 and older in the U.S. are hospitalized with RSV each year.  An estimated 14,000 cases result in death.
About 177,000 adults 65 and older in the U.S. are hospitalized with RSV each year. An estimated 14,000 cases result in death.

Many kids in Texas get RSV each year, but adults 65 and older also are at high risk for the virus. The FDA has approved new vaccines against RSV for older adults. KERA’s Sam Baker talks about the vaccines with Dr. Donna Casey, an internal medicine physician with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.

About RSV

Respiratory syncytial virus. This is a very old virus. The CDC identified it in the 1960s and we see it constantly. It's worse in the fall and winter months, but we see it especially in children because it's so contagious. Kids tend to spread it because they don't have as good sanitation habits as adults.

But it also impacts adults as well?

Yes. Unlike children who have robust immune responses, most older people over 65 especially have a weakened immune system from chronic diseases.

And there are chronic diseases that make you have a tipping point. For instance, we see a lot of people with flu that get hospitalized and have congestive heart failure exacerbations or even heart attacks, because when your body gets stressed, all those little things can be magnified.

And a lot of Texas households are multigenerational. You see grandparents and children living close to each other who are also living in the same house. So, we really want to protect these vulnerable people.

We've had approval for vaccines from GSK and Pfizer that are aimed at adults ages 60 and older. How exactly do they work and fight against RSV?

There's an F protein, and they target different proteins, which helps the virus bind to your cells. These vaccines are pretty effective against the virus.

In GlaxoSmithKline's study, 12,500 people got a placebo and 12,500 people got the vaccine. They realized after one year the effectiveness against severe RSV was 94%. And against RSV, overall, it was 84%, which is amazing because as people know, the flu vaccine, which is highly recommended, is only about 50% effective.

And I might mention with the vaccine, the major side effect is having some body aches, but that's actually because you are making an immune response to the virus. We get that immune complex response where people are when you make the antibodies, you get that kind of ickiness overall. But nobody had any severe consequences from getting the vaccine.

This is a big game-changer?

Yes. And I know that people have virus fatigue, quote unquote.

Do you anticipate people saying “another one”? And “I don't know if I want to deal with this. Maybe I want to wait a while to see how other people respond to it?”

I do anticipate that. But in my patient population, I take care of a lot of sick people with complex diseases. This seems like a low-hanging fruit, an easy thing to protect our older population.

Can you take or should you take the RSV vaccine with, say, the flu vaccine? 

I'm going to say no. In anecdotal analysis, you want to give your body time to make antibodies to one thing at a time and not overwhelm it. And in one small analysis where they did do a flu vaccine and the RSV vaccine at the same time, people did not do as well.

The vaccines aren't expected to go into use until the fall. How should you protect yourself against RSV in the meantime?

Just basic smart precautions for infectious diseases, washing your hands, because, by the way, you can get a droplet of this on your hand from a surface, and rubbing your nose - which we all do because we have seasonal allergies in Texas - and give yourself the virus. It’s not just spread through droplets in the air. And just being smart, right? If somebody's sick, especially small children that tend not to have a high fever, you know, like they're sneezing and coughing, just being having good sanitary precautions.


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Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.