By Dr. George Terwilliger, Grace Cottage Hospital Chief Medical Officer
Fall and winter months typically usher in waves of infections, with RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus), COVID-19, and flu (influenza) posing significant health risks. Health experts are concerned these viruses may circulate simultaneously this year, creating a “tripledemic,” straining healthcare systems and access to care. Immunizations are the best defense for you and those you care about against serious illness from these diseases. This is particularly important for those with certain risk factors.
Vaccines are an important way to gain immunity. Immunity to a disease is achieved when disease-specific immune cells and antibodies are present in your body, as these can neutralize toxins or disease-carrying organisms, preventing serious illness or death.
Immunization can be either active or passive.
- Active immunity results from exposure to a disease organism or its components. This triggers the immune system to produce antibodies and immune cells.
You can gain active immunity either by becoming infected with the actual disease (natural immunity), or through a vaccine. The obvious disadvantage of the natural method is that severe illness or death can occur. Either way, if an immune person encounters that disease in the future, their immune system will recognize it and rapidly produce the defenses needed to fight it. Active immunity is usually long-lasting.
- Passive immunity occurs when a person is given the antibodies directly, rather than producing them through their own immune system. For example, a newborn acquires passive immunity from its mother through the placenta. People can also get passive immunity through products such as monoclonal antibodies. The major advantage to passive immunity is that protection is immediate, whereas active immunity takes time (usually several weeks) to develop. However, passive immunity lasts only for a few weeks or months.
RSV Immunization: A New Hope
RSV, an important cause of the common cold, can sometimes cause respiratory distress, especially in infants, older adults, and individuals with underlying health conditions. It is highly contagious and tends to peak from fall through spring.
RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization for infants under the age of one year in the U.S. Until this year, the only available protection from RSV was a very expensive monthly antibody shot used only in highly susceptible infants. However, this year, new RSV vaccines and a longer-lasting antibody product for infants were approved, marking a turning point in the ability to combat this virus safely and effectively.
RSV immunization treatments are recommended for several high-risk groups:
- All infants under 8 months old, born during or entering their first RSV season (fall through spring) should receive nirsevimab, the new RSV monoclonal antibody shot.
- Children aged 8 to 19 months who have risk factors for severe RSV illness, such as premature birth or chronic lung disease, should receive nirsevimab. Consult with your child’s healthcare provider for guidance.
- All pregnant women at 32-36 weeks gestation should receive the vaccine Abrysvo to protect their babies from severe RSV. Please note: the adult RSV vaccine, Arexvy, is not approved for use during pregnancy.
- Adults aged 60+ years, especially those with chronic lung issues, are also eligible for the new RSV vaccines, either Arexvy or Abrysvo. Speak with your healthcare provider to determine if RSV vaccination is appropriate for you.
COVID-19 Vaccine: Pillar of Pandemic Response
The rapid development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines have been nothing short of miraculous. Vaccination has been instrumental in reducing COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities, as well as preventing long-COVID. The CDC recommends that everyone aged 6 months and older get vaccinated against the latest COVID-19 variants with the updated vaccine released this fall. Specific groups may require additional doses to maintain protection.
Flu Vaccine: Why Do I Need to Get Vaccinated Every Year?
Because flu viruses mutate so quickly, last year’s vaccine may not completely protect you from this year’s viruses. New flu vaccines are released every year to keep up with these changes. It is especially important for those at higher risk of complications. Even for those without risk factors, receiving the flu vaccine is crucial, as it helps prevent the spread of the virus to more vulnerable individuals.
Getting the Shots
The CDC advises that it is safe to get the RSV, COVID-19, and flu shots all at the same time. These immunizations are available at many pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and health clinics. Many workplaces and schools also offer vaccination clinics.
Don’t wait to protect yourself and your loved ones this fall. Get immunized against the flu, RSV, and COVID-19.
For more information, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/respiratory-viruses