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CDC Recommends RSV Vaccines for Adults 60 and Older

The shots reduce the risk of severe respiratory illness among those at high risk


spinner image an electron microscope image of the respiratory syntactical virus (RSV) virons, colorized blue, and anti-TSV F protein/gold antibiodies, colorized yellow, on human lung cells
National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases / Associated Press

Adults ages 60 and older can get a new vaccine this fall to help protect against RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) after consulting their doctor, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced on June 29. Two RSV vaccines were federally approved for the older adult population in May. They are the first RSV vaccines on the market. 

Why a vaccine? 

RSV is a common respiratory virus that in most people causes coldlike symptoms. In young children and older adults, however, an infection can turn dangerous, even deadly. Adults with chronic heart or lung disease and those with weakened immune systems are also at high risk for complications from an infection. 

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RSV can lead to pneumonia and bronchiolitis (an inflammation of the small airways in the lung). It can also worsen other chronic health conditions common among the older population, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

spinner image close up of two vials of the GSK respiratory syntactical virus (RSV) vaccine
Two vials of Arexvy, developed from manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the world's first RSV vaccine for 60-plus adults.
Rawpixel Ltd. / Associated Press

“We’ve learned so much more about RSV, and now it’s quite evident that it really is as important as influenza, particularly for older adults, and even more so for those with underlying conditions,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

Between 60,000 and 160,000 adults 65 and older are hospitalized with RSV each year, and 6,000 to 10,000 older adults die from it annually, according to figures from the CDC. By comparison, during the 2021-2022 flu season, preliminary estimates show that 51,686 adults 65 and older were hospitalized with influenza, and 3,818 died. 

Effectiveness and side effects  

Clinical trial data reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that Arexvy, from manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, reduced the risk of symptomatic illness from an RSV infection in adults 60 and older by nearly 83 percent; the risk of severe disease was cut by about 94 percent in the older adult population. 

Some side effects were reported, the most common of which include injection site pain, fatigue, muscle pain, headache, and joint stiffness and pain. The FDA noted in its May 3 approval that atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rate, was reported within 30 days of vaccination in 10 of the roughly 12,500 participants who received Arexvy and four of the roughly 12,500 participants who received the placebo. GlaxoSmithKline will conduct a study to assess this risk, along with other rare events, the FDA said.

The FDA approved a second RSV vaccine, also for adults 60 and older, from drugmaker Pfizer on May 31. In clinical trials, the vaccine, Abrysvo, was nearly 67 percent effective against RSV illness with two symptoms and 86 percent effective against three or more symptoms. 

The study results were published in The New England Journal of Medicine; and the most common side effects reported were pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache and muscle pain. The FDA also asked Pfizer to conduct a study to assess the risk of rare events, including the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome. 

A long wait

Scientists have been working to develop an RSV vaccine for decades, but the very nature of the virus and how it infects our cells made it difficult, Schaffner explains. Researchers cracked the code, however, and now several RSV candidates are in the pipeline.

Len Friedland, M.D., vice president and director of scientific affairs and public health at GlaxoSmithKline, told AARP that the drugmaker’s newly approved vaccine is also being studied in adults 50 to 59, since individuals in this age group with underlying health conditions are at high risk for severe illness from RSV. Results from this research should be available soon, Friedland said.

As far as the younger population goes, Schaffner says researchers are investigating RSV vaccines for pregnant women and will eventually investigate vaccines for young children, to curb the complications of RSV in the pediatric population. Hospitals throughout the U.S. were overrun with sick kids this past fall when cases of RSV were surging. It’s estimated that 58,000 to 80,000 children younger than 5 are hospitalized each year with RSV.

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The CDC said the new RSV vaccines are expected to be available this fall, which is when the virus typically begins circulating, with activity peaking in the winter months. 

In the meantime, there are other ways to reduce your risk of getting sick with RSV. Hand hygiene is important, Schaffner says, and because the virus spreads in the same way as influenza and the coronavirus, a high-quality mask can help. 

“Be careful attending indoor group events, particularly,” Schaffner says. “So, if you’re traveling, if you’re going to religious services, if you’re going to your grandson’s basketball game — if you’re in that high-risk group, don’t hesitate to put your mask back on.”

Editor's note: This story, first published May 3, 2023, has been updated to include new information.

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