Wisconsin health officials are urging pregnant women and older adults to get vaccinated against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) following a surge of RSV-related hospitalizations and deaths among infants this winter. As of January 11th, RSV has led to over 1,400 hospitalizations and 3 confirmed child deaths so far this season in Wisconsin.
Spike in RSV Cases Overwhelming Hospitals
Children’s hospitals across Wisconsin are struggling to keep up with the high number of RSV patients. Some hospitals are even facing shortages of the recently approved RSV vaccine for infants.
At Children’s Wisconsin in Milwaukee, RSV cases in the pediatric intensive care unit were up to 30 patients in early January compared to a peak of 32 RSV hospitalizations for the entire prior RSV season.
“We’re using every bed that we possibly can for our patients,” said Dr. Michael Meyer, medical director of the pediatric ICU via WISN 12.
Meanwhile, Marshfield Children’s Hospital had to implement surge standards in early January given limited bed availability amidst an influx of RSV, flu, and other respiratory illness patients.
This crisis demonstrates the severe toll that RSV can take on pediatric health services. More widespread vaccination against the virus could help reduce the disease burden.
State Officials Strongly Recommend Vaccination for Pregnant Women
On January 11th, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) issued updated guidance strongly recommending that pregnant women get vaccinated against RSV.
The agency advised vaccination during the third trimester of pregnancy so that antibodies can transfer to the baby and provide protection for the first few months of life before the infant is old enough to receive the RSV vaccine themselves.
“Vaccinating during pregnancy is the best way to help protect vulnerable infants from RSV disease by boosting mom’s antibodies against RSV, which are passed to the developing baby,” said DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake.
Health officials cited modeling estimates that routine maternal RSV vaccination could prevent over 20,000 RSV hospitalizations among U.S. infants under 6 months old.
So far, less than 5% of pregnant women in Wisconsin have received the recommended RSV immunization. The state aims to improve vaccine uptake through outreach to prenatal care providers and pregnant individuals.
RSV Vaccine Shortages Leave Some Children Unprotected
While most RSV hospitalizations occur in infants under 6 months old, the virus can also severely impact older babies. The RSV vaccine was recently approved for children up to 24 months.
However, many pediatric clinics are unable to offer the RSV shots due to limited supply from vaccine manufacturers.
“We just don’t have enough. We’re having to pick and choose the highest risk kids,” said Dr. Greg Demuri with UW Health Kids in Madison [Source].
|RSV Vaccine Recommendation
|Vaccinated during 3rd trimester of each pregnancy
|Infants under 6 months
|Protection from maternal vaccination
|Children 6-24 months
|Up to 3 vaccine doses based on age and health risk factors
|Adults over 60
|1 vaccine dose before RSV season
The table above summarizes the latest RSV vaccination guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccine availability issues mean that some high-risk babies over 6 months cannot get the shots they need for protection this RSV season.
What Can Parents Do? Expert Tips for RSV Prevention
While the RSV vaccine offers important protection, parents can also take other steps to prevent infection in their families:
- Avoid close contact with sick people: Keep infants away from older siblings and adults with cold symptoms, which could be infectious RSV
- Wash hands frequently: Use soap and warm water to remove germs that spread RSV
- Limit exposure to crowded indoor spaces: The risk of catching a respiratory illness goes up in indoor venues where many people gather and share air
- Get yearly flu and COVID vaccines: Preventing these other viruses reduces overall stress on healthcare systems caring for pediatric RSV patients
Pediatric health experts agree that no single intervention can fully prevent RSV, but layered prevention efforts add up to better protect babies.
Outlook: RSV Vaccination Likely to Expand Next Season
Looking ahead to the 2024-2025 RSV season, health officials are optimistic that vaccine supply constraints will ease, enabling more widespread immunization.
RSV vaccine manufacturers have been rapidly scaling up production capacity. Pfizer aims to produce 30 million RSV vaccine doses by April 2024, while GSK expects capacity for 30+ million doses for next season.
Broader vaccination could significantly curb pediatric RSV hospital rates that have overwhelmed children’s hospitals two years in a row. In particular, improving vaccination rates in pregnant women and young infants offers the greatest potential to reduce severe childhood RSV disease.
Wisconsin health leaders urge medical providers and families to prepare now and get vaccinated against RSV as soon as possible once the next recommendations are released later this year. Protecting vulnerable residents can help the healthcare system weather the ongoing threat of pediatric respiratory viruses.
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