Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms. However, it can be serious, or fatal, for infants, as well as for older adults.
To protect the most vulnerable, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently recommended the use of a new RSV vaccine for pregnant women for the first time because the benefits pass to the fetus. However, some women seeking the vaccine are having a hard time finding it, even as RSV cases start to climb.
What is RSV?
RSV is a pediatric respiratory infection that is common in the winter months. “About 70,000 children under the age of 5 get it and around 200 kids die from it per year,” most of whom are under 6 months, Dr. Gil Weiss tells Yahoo Life. Weiss is an ob-gyn at the Association for Women’s Health Care and assistant professor of clinical medicine in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
According to the CDC, up to 80,000 children under 5 are hospitalized with RSV annually. “Last year during the RSV season, children's hospitals across the country were overwhelmed by sick babies,” says Weiss. The CDC expects a similar number of hospitalizations from RSV this year.
Although there is a preventative shot infants and toddlers can get to protect them from RSV, it’s in short supply. That shortage has left many infants at increased risk of hospitalization and death from RSV.
Why should pregnant women consider getting the vaccine?
The shortage of RSV shots for children is concerning, but there is something pregnant women can do to protect their newborns. If women get the RSV vaccine while pregnant, the protective benefits pass to their babies. The recommended maternal vaccine is called Abrysvo and is different from the preventative shot recommended for infants.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant people get the RSV vaccine between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, according to Dr. David Caiseda, an ob-gyn and medical director of the women’s health outpatient office practice at the University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Group.
“Once the mother is vaccinated, she is going to have an immune response to the vaccine,” Caiseda tells Yahoo Life. “She will create antibodies that will travel through the placenta into the baby and the babies are going to be born protected against the RSV infection for the first six months” of life.
Some pregnant women are concerned about getting the RSV vaccine while pregnant. However, Caiseda says there are few risks for the woman “except for the usual response to any other vaccine we may receive.” In contrast, the risks of not getting the RSV vaccine while pregnant are high. When given to pregnant women, “the RSV vaccine was shown to reduce severe infection in infants by 91% at three months after birth and by about 77% at six months,” Weiss says.
Why is the RSV vaccine hard to find?
Some pregnant women who want the vaccine are having a hard time finding it in stock. Jerica Pitts, senior director of global media relations for Pfizer, the company that makes the RSV vaccine for pregnant women, tells Yahoo Life that “there isn’t a shortage of vaccines for maternal use.” But that doesn’t mean RSV is easy to find.
New mom Gabriela Sasko wanted the RSV vaccine in her third trimester but wasn’t able to get the shot from her ob-gyn. She tells Yahoo Life that she wanted to “provide our child with the healthiest and best options for their future” and “be proactive in protecting and preventing potential illness in our soon-to-be newborn.” But getting the recommended vaccine took a lot of effort on her part.
“Finding the drug in stock was a bit troublesome,” she says. Along with her partner Austin, Sasko says that “we called maybe 10 places until someone recommended a location” that had the vaccine in stock. Similarly, Weiss says that he knows of some patients outside of Chicago, where he works, that are “experiencing a limit in supplies of the vaccine.”
Dr. Rakhee Patel, an ob-gyn with Pinewood Family Care, who is Sasko’s ob-gyn, tells Yahoo Life that “the shortage of the RSV vaccine may be caused by production issues, distribution problems or increased demand, particularly during peak RSV season.”
What should pregnant people do if they can’t access the RSV vaccine?
Caiseda says that if pregnant people can’t get the RSV vaccine from their ob-gyn, they shouldn’t give up and should keep looking. The vaccine may be available at vaccination centers, including local pharmacies, or from primary care physicians, he says. Pregnant people can also use VaxAssist to help them find somewhere with the RSV vaccine in stock.
If that doesn’t work, Patel recommends following steps to help reduce the risk of contracting RSV. “If a pregnant person cannot get the RSV vaccine due to a shortage, they should practice good hygiene, avoid contact with sick individuals and discuss alternative strategies with their health care provider,” Patel says.
Caiseda stresses the importance of getting the RSV vaccine while pregnant, even if it takes some effort to find. “Prevention is always the best medicine for any condition,” he says.