Image of William Schaffner, M.D.; Image credit: NFID
William Schaffner, M.D., medical director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; Image credit: NFID

It’s time for clinicians to get up-to-date on respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and help to address the threat it poses to older adults, according to a new report and call to action from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

RSV is a common seasonal virus with cold-like symptoms that is distinct from influenza. It can cause pneumonia and death in the very old and very young, but has no available treatment. The disease is underreported and its impact on public health is unappreciated — even among clinicians, NFID medical director William Schaffner, M.D., told McKnight’s Clinical Daily. But RSV is increasingly recognized as a significant cause of respiratory illness in adults aged 65 years and older, he said.

“The traditional view of RSV infection is that it produces bronchiolitis in children. However, we are learning that its impact extends across the lifespan and can produce serious disease in people of all ages, particularly among older adults,” he said. 

RSV infections cause an estimated 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths each year among adults aged 65 years and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The NFID is calling for more progress in RSV surveillance, diagnosis, prevention and treatment. RSV diagnostic testing should be more widely available across outpatients and hospital settings, Schaffner and colleagues said.

“Over the last 15 years, we have learned that RSV often produces serious lower respiratory disease as does influenza. As surveillance is increased, we expect to have better information about the extent of the problem among older adults,” Schaffner told McKnight’s.

LTC and new treatments in the works 

That need for increased monitoring applies to long-term care facilities, many of whom got a bit of an RSV wake-up call this summer, he said. Nursing home clinicians in June were alerted by the CDC about unseasonably high case rates due to pandemic disruptions. Additional surveillance and testing were encouraged at the time, and Schaffner said these efforts should be ongoing.

Encouragingly, new treatments are in the clinical trials pipeline for the first time in 20 years, he and his colleagues added. These include vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline along with monoclonal antibody therapies. 

It is important for healthcare professionals to be familiar with the broad clinical presentation of RSV and its burden across the lifespan in order to optimize these new treatments, Schaffner said. But to do that, clinicians and public health officials must come on board, he added.

“We need to be prepared to use them appropriately when they become available.  Part of doing that is defining the extent of the RSV problem,” he said.

The report, “Call to Action: Reducing the Burden of RSV across the Lifespan,” is available on the NFID website.

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