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Amira Roess, professor of public health at George Mason University's College of Public Health, addresses RSV concerns
Respiratory syncytial virus, known more widely as RSV, is a common respiratory infection that presents cold and flu-like symptoms. Like many other viral infections, RSV makes seasonal appearances during the fall and winter, with cases peaking around December and steadily declining until approximately mid-April. During the COVID lockdowns, RSV cases fell when person-to-person contact was reduced. However, cases began to spike in many parts of the country this summer.
With many daycares and schools operating at full capacity, RSV cases have been significantly rising since the beginning of the fall. Babies born during stay-at-home orders have had no exposure to build protective antibodies, and herd immunity has waned. This likely explains why there has been such a drastic uptick in RSV cases compared to years before COVID. A vaccine for RSV is currently in the trial phase. Dr. Amira Roess, an expert on global disease epidemiology, answers questions about RSV and discusses the positive outlook for vaccine development. She is available for further comment.
What is respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV?
RSV is a respiratory illness that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. A runny nose, coughing, sneezing, fever, shortness of breath, and decrease in appetite are common signs. Symptoms typically manifest between four-to-six days after infection, and an individual can remain contagious anywhere from three to eight days after infection.
While most individuals who contract RSV will recover in one-to-two weeks with rest and symptom management, severe cases can lead to bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
How is RSV transmitted?
Like many other viruses, RSV is contracted when viral droplets enter the body through the eyes, nose, or mouth. Touching one’s eyes or nose after handling contaminated toys or other objects can easily spread RSV. Being near someone who is infectious when they sneeze or cough is a common way to become infected. RSV can survive for hours on hard surfaces. It can also survive on soft surfaces and hands for shorter periods of time.
Who is most vulnerable to RSV infection?
People of all ages can get RSV, but the populations most at risk for severe RSV infection are infants, especially those less than 6 months of age. Young children, older adults, and those with chronic or immunocompromising conditions are also at risk. Premature infants and infants under six months of age are especially vulnerable, with 1 to 2 out of every 100 young infants infected with RSV requiring hospitalization. Adults 65 years and older also need to be particularly vigilant.
In the most severe cases, infants under six months and adults over 65 have been hospitalized and required oxygen, IV fluids, or intubation with mechanical ventilation to aid breathing.
What steps can be taken to prevent RSV infection?
The steps that you can take to prevent RSV exposure are similar to what you would do to prevent COVID-19 and other viral infections. Proper hygiene is a great way to prevent any infection. Washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face are simple preventative measures everyone should take. The virus can live temporarily on surfaces that we touch every day, so be sure to clean tables, cribs, classroom supplies, doorknobs, phone screens, and anything else where the virus could reside. Teachers of small children should practice and enforce good hygiene for their students.
Similar to how we prevent COVID spread, avoid close contact with individuals who are sick, stay at home if you are displaying symptoms, and mask in larger crowds with people who you don't know.
Is there a vaccine against RSV?
While no vaccine for RSV is currently available, a vaccine has been developed, tested, and is now under consideration for use in pregnant women. The vaccine trials showed very promising safety and effectiveness data. This vaccine is designed to protect the infant through antibody transfer from a pregnant woman to the fetus during the last trimester of pregnancy. The mother would get the vaccine in the third trimester of pregnancy and then pass protective antibodies to the fetus in utero.
This vaccination method is similar to what we do to fight whooping cough (also known as pertussis). Our pertussis vaccination rates are high, and as a result, we have drastically cut the incidence of whooping cough to the point where it is extremely rare to have a young infant hospitalized due to whooping cough. We are hopeful to do the same with RSV. If all goes to plan, the vaccine is anticipated to be ready in the next six-to-nine months, hopefully in time for the next RSV season.
Dr. Amira Roess specializes in infectious diseases, especially reducing the transmission of diseases that spread between animals and humans, including coronaviruses like MERS-CoV and SAR-CoV-2, the latter of which causes COVID-19. She has expertise in emerging zoonotic infectious diseases and interventions to reduce the transmission and impact of infectious diseases.
She is a professor of Global Health and Epidemiology at George Mason University's College of Public Health in the Department of Global and Community Health. Prior to joining academia, Roess served as the Science Director for the Pew Commission on Industrial Food Animal Production at Johns Hopkins and was an Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) officer at the CDC. She has served as a consultant for the United States Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and Westat Inc.
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George Mason University, Virginia’s largest public research university, enrolls 39,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason has grown rapidly over the last half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity, and commitment to accessibility. In 2022, Mason celebrates 50 years as an independent institution. Learn more at http://www.gmu.edu.
About College of Public Health at George Mason University
The College of Public Health at George Mason University is the first and only College of Public Health in Virginia combining public health transdisciplinary research, education, and practice in the Commonwealth as a national exemplar. The College enrolls more than 1,900 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students in our nationally recognized programs, including six undergraduate degrees, eight master’s degrees, five doctoral degrees, and six professional certificate programs. The College is comprised of the School of Nursing and the Departments of Global and Community Health, Health Administration and Policy, Nutrition and Food Studies, and Social Work.