CA needs timely immunizations against respiratory syncytial virus

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OPINION – AltaMed Health Services works to bridge the gap in disparities in health care access and outcomes by providing health and human services for Latino, multi-ethnic, and often-overlooked communities in Southern California. Our work was especially challenging during the height of the pandemic where, along with many volunteers and community partners, we were providing care on the frontlines and administering treatment to those affected by the coronavirus.

As a physician practicing in our community, I had the hands-on experience that allowed me to see how effective immunizations would be in reducing the impact and spread of the virus, as well as saving countless lives and relieving the burden on our patients. Now as we enter this new phase of the pandemic, the coronavirus has made us more aware of other viruses that are just as harmful and potentially even deadlier. Last year, we saw just that with a rise in cases of Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

RSV is a highly contagious virus that can cause severe respiratory illness in infants. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV is the most common cause of lower respiratory tract infections in babies and young children under two years old. It is the leading cause of hospitalization for infants under the age of 1 in the U.S., totaling up to 80,000 hospitalizations per year. Two out of every three babies contract RSV before their first birthday and while it is most common during the winter virus season, RSV season can vary. Without an effective RSV immunization, there is a significant risk of our community and its most vulnerable members becoming ill and potentially having a bad outcome from the virus.

There is still so much uncertainty with this virus and we have to call upon our national leaders to take urgent actions to make sure all infants and children are protected against RSV.

In the 2022-2023 RSV season, the country experienced an overwhelming number of RSV cases. The California Department of Public Health issued a Health Advisory in October on RSV after they saw a surge in cases in September, much sooner than the typical RSV season that occurs during winter. The Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles similarly saw a surge of RSV cases unseasonably earlier than normal, where many health experts stated that “seasonality is out the window,” indicating that RSV is more unpredictable than ever. Before the season even started in 2022, positive RSV cases were at 31% compared to last year’s winter peak of 24%. This is why it is essential that we have effective RSV immunizations available to the most vulnerable in our community as soon as possible.

The importance of, and urgent need for, an effective RSV immunization is two-fold. First, it provides a vital preventative measure against the virus and helps to reduce the number of new cases, keeping our communities healthier and reducing the burden on our healthcare system. Second, an effective RSV immunization provides peace of mind and security for parents of young children. Developing and distributing an effective RSV immunization will help keep our communities safe and secure by providing an additional level of protection against the virus.

There is still so much uncertainty with this virus and we have to call upon our national leaders to take urgent actions to make sure all infants and children are protected against RSV. Fortunately, scientists have made great strides in immunization technology, enabling them to quickly develop new immunizations that could prevent the spread of respiratory diseases. Right now, there is an immunization for RSV that has already been approved in Europe and could soon be available in the United States.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently reviewing these immunizations that can prevent RSV in infants. For the first time ever, we are close to being able to protect all infants from RSV and its harmful effects. As a physician on the frontlines — serving our most vulnerable communities — I urge the CDC and FDA to act quickly. The review process of these immunizations can and should be expedited so that all community members could be protected before the next RSV season begins. California’s children depend on it.

Dr. Ilan Shapiro is the Senior Vice-President and Chief Health Correspondent and Medical Affairs Officer at AltaMed Health Services

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