The RSV Immunity Gap

By Veronica Villanueva, C2ST Intern, Rush University

It’s that time of the year again–time for warm tea, cozy sweaters, and runny noses. 

Autumn is “cold and flu season” due to several factors including: reduced immune function due to cold weather, increased allergies making you more susceptible to viruses, and close proximity to people increasing viral spread. This is why the CDC recommends getting your flu vaccine in early fall (September/October) allowing you to maintain immunity through the cold months.

While we have a yearly vaccine for the flu, there are several other viruses that are common during this time of year. A virus wreaking havoc this year is respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms including a runny nose, fever, coughing, sneezing, and wheezing. It is very common (around 2 million cases a year) and people usually recover within a week thinking they just had a cold. 

For some people, especially infants and young children, it can cause bronchitis or pneumonia, leading to hospitalization.

This year is a special case. The whole world is recovering from a pandemic. Cold, flu, and RSV cases decreased significantly from 2020-2021 due in part to social distancing. Now that people are back at work and school, cold and flu cases are spiking. RSV cases have increased significantly this year, especially in children 3 years old and younger. Several scientists and doctors believe that this spike is due to a lack of exposure to RSV. 

When children begin daycare and school, they get exposed to “common viruses.” This exposure leads to kids building their immune systems in small increments so they can respond efficiently to new viruses. For example, according to the CDC, most children have had RSV by the time they are 2 years old. But children born in the past 2 years were born in quarantine. These toddlers haven’t been exposed to common viruses. Scientists are calling this lack of immune exposure in younger populations an “immunity gap.”

These RSV cases are increasing pediatric hospitalizations. Consequently, the question becomes, how do we prevent the further spread of RSV? There is no approved RSV vaccine (though scientists are working on one) so prevention is done through means similar to preventing the common cold. RSV, like other viruses, is spread through liquid particles often left on surfaces. Handwashing is paramount. Additionally, keeping hands away from your face and staying home if you’re sick is advised

While the worldwide pandemic continues to abate, there are still some repercussions that we have to overcome together. So for the health and safety of you, your loved ones, and your community, keep washing your hands.



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