Over 60 or Pregnant? Then You’ve Got To Know About This New Vaccine, Say Doctors

Updated: Sep. 13, 2023

"This is very exciting," says one infectious disease doctor. The new RSV vaccines are here—and it's not just babies who need them, according to doctors who specialize in immunity and internal medicine.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently gave its nod to Abrysvo, an RSV shot that may help pregnant women protect their newborn from respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

The FDA recently approved this same RSV vaccine only for folks aged 60, and older as well as another vaccine called Arexvy, for this same age group. These join a new RSV monoclonal antibody shot that is recommended for babies who will be born into first RSV season this fall.

“This is very exciting,” Kathryn S. Moffett, MD, a professor and division chief of pediatric infectious diseases a West Virginia University School of Medicine in Morgantown, WV, tells The Healthy @Reader’s Digest. “Until recently, we only had one RSV shot for babies who were considered only preemies born early and at extremely low birth weights with underlying diseases.”

Considering the record surge in RSV cases last year—plus the combined threat of flu and COVID-19—this is encouraging news that affects several main demographics.

Who needs an RSV vaccine?

RSV is one of the most common causes of childhood respiratory illness. Up to 80,000 children under age five are hospitalized each year nationwide due to RSV infection. Each year, an estimated 100 to 300 children younger than five years old die due to RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). RSV is the leading cause of infant hospitalization in the U.S.

However, as pervasive as RSV was in the 2022-2023 peak virus season, it’s important to note that the virus can infect individuals within age groups well beyond little ones. Says Dr. Moffett: “It is a huge cause of respiratory disease, usually in winter, in people of all ages.”

In 2023, the CDC stated, “[…I]t is estimated that between 60,000-160,000 older adults in the United States are hospitalized and 6,000-10,000 die due to RSV infection.” The CDC adds that RSV can contribute to the worsening of congestive heart failure and chronic respiratory illnesses like asthma and COPD.

Also from the CDC:

Adults at highest risk for severe RSV infection include:

  • Older adults
  • Adults with chronic heart or lung disease
  • Adults with weakened immune systems
  • Adults with certain other underlying medical conditions
  • Adults living in nursing homes or long-term care facilities

How important is it for pregnant people to get an RSV vaccine?

Starting with one of the most vulnerable groups: To help protect newborns from RSV, the new RSV vaccines are approved for use at 32 through 36 weeks of the expectant parent’s pregnancy.

Administered as a single shot into the muscle, pregnant people would receive immunity from the RSV vaccine during pregnancy and pass that along to their baby before birth. “Babies born at term who have no risks for serious RSV infection can still become very ill,” Dr. Moffett says. “This why vaccinating mothers is really important. There is evidence that moms of term babies who get really sick with RSV have limited to no memory of having RSV, so their baby was wide open and not protected at all.”

How well does the new RSV shot work in pregnant women?

Researchers who published an April study in the peer-reviewed New England Journal of Medicine, which is considered one of the leading medical journals, concluded that infants born to pregnant people who received the vaccine experienced an 81% reduced risk of developing severe RSV within the first three months of birth, compared to the infants of a parent who received a placebo injection.

Who else should get an RSV shot?

All infants under eight months of age should get one dose of Beyfortus (a brand name for nirsevimab), a long-acting monoclonal antibody shot that can protect against severe RSV, the CDC states. Beyfortus reduces the risk of both hospitalization and doctor visits for RSV in infants by about 80% during a baby’s first RSV season. Some infants ages eight to 19 months can get a second dose of nirsevimab to help them through their second RSV season if they have underlying health issues.

A traditional vaccine causes your body to build up antibodies that protect you against a virus like RSV. By contrast, monoclonal antibody shots give you antibodies so you have them ready to go when exposed to RSV.

This new RSV shot is a game-changer, Dr. Moffett says. “The current available shot for at-risk newborns must be given monthly for five months and does not seem to confer the same amount of protection as the newer shot.”

The main side effects of the new shots may include injection-site reactions fatigue, muscle pain, and headaches, experts tell The Healthy.

Will people take the RSV shot?

This was the main question that pollsters at the University of Michigan sought to understand among folks aged 60 and older. Half of older adults did not know about the new RSV vaccine, according to the poll. When they were asked how interested they are in getting vaccinated, 21% of those who answered said they were very interested, and another 43% said they were somewhat interested. More than 65 % of those with a chronic health condition said they were very or somewhat interested in getting the vaccine, even if they had not heard of it before being polled.

This RSV shot is really important for this age group, says Preeti Malani, MD, senior advisor to the poll who has training in geriatrics as well as infectious disease and is a physician at Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center in Ann Arbor, MI. “If you are 60 and have underlying health issues such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, kidney concerns, are taking medication that affects your immune system, or live or spend time in group settings, this shot can save your life.”

The bottom line

“Vaccines save lives, and when you are exposed to this virus, even if it gets in your system, you have been building up immunity to fight off infection and temper that reaction,” says Tochi Iroku-Malize, MD, President of the American Academy of Family Physicians, founding chair and professor of family medicine for the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, NY, and senior vice president and chair of the family medicine service line for Northwell Health. “Without the vaccine, you can have complications and could end up hospitalized or even die from RSV.”

Talk with your healthcare provider about whether the benefits outweigh the risks for you and your family members, she suggests.