As children’s hospitals fill with young children with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), doctors fear the elderly may be the next wave to fall seriously ill.
“Right now, everyone is focused on what’s going on in our pediatric hospitals,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto.
“It’s almost a snapshot of what we think will happen in our adult hospitals as well.”
Infectious disease experts have reported an earlier and tougher than usual RSV and flu season, in part because COVID-19 pandemic health measures in previous years also protected against these viruses.
But older people are also vulnerable to serious illness this year as more RSV circulates — and it’s only a matter of time before the spread jumps from children to grandparents, Sinha said.
“We are concerned this year that we will see a record number of older people exposed to RSV,” he said.
Although data on current RSV admissions by age group is limited, doctors are already beginning to see “an increasing number” of adults admitted to hospital with RSV, as well as influenza and COVID-19. , Sinha said.
The Public Health Agency of Canada does not collect age-specific data on RSV hospitalizations, it said in a statement to The Canadian Press.
“RSV and influenza are two infections that have historically had a disproportionate impact on the very young and the very old,” said Dawn Bowdish, Canada Research Chair in Aging and Immunity and immunologist at the McMaster University in Hamilton.
This is because a child’s first RSV infection tends to make them sickest, and then they have some immunity over their lifetime. But that ability to mount a strong immune response and fight off infection declines in older people, she said.
On top of that, people 65 and older tend to have less resilient lungs, she said, so they’re “much more vulnerable to lung damage” from respiratory infections like RSV.
Even though there are a lot of young children with RSV, they tend to recover, while older patients could be hit much harder, Sinha said.
“Our big concern right now is that we know that the true burden of disease, each year, tends to be highest when it comes to RSV in the elderly. That’s where we see the vast majority hospitalizations and deaths,” he said.
HOW TO PROTECT SENIORS AS THE HOLIDAYS APPROACH
Families may decide to protect the elderly by minimizing contact with vulnerable seniors during this surge in respiratory disease, but that won’t be realistic when the holidays roll around, Bowdish said.
“(If) you have an elderly person living in long-term care facilities, or a family member who is a bit socially isolated…the pull of togetherness is so strong and so important,” he said. she declared. “I would never recommend complete isolation.”
Unlike COVID-19 or the flu, there is currently no vaccine for RSV, which makes other prevention measures even more important, she said. These include wearing a mask and not visiting your older relative if you are not feeling well.
POTENTIAL RSV VACCINE FOR SENIORS
In a statement released Thursday, Health Canada said it received a submission from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) on Oct. 25 for an RSV vaccine for adults 60 and older.
Additionally, Pfizer has informed Health Canada that it plans to submit two candidate RSV vaccines for review: one for the elderly and one for pregnant women, according to the release.
“Once a submission is received, as with all vaccine submissions, Health Canada reviews it using an independent process based on scientific rigor and medical evidence,” he said.
Sinha and Bowdish say a safe and effective RSV vaccine would be an important tool to protect older people.
“The preliminary data I’ve seen from different manufacturers is actually quite promising,” Sinha said.
These data appear to show a “fairly good level of efficacy” and ability to significantly reduce hospitalizations and other serious consequences of RSV in older adults, he said.
“We are hopeful … that we could potentially get an RSV vaccine approved for the elderly as early as next year.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 25, 2022.
This story has been produced with the financial assistance of the Canadian Medical Association.