This article appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Read more here.
State health officials are urging pregnant Wisconsinites to get a new vaccine to protect their newborns from respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which has killed three children and hospitalized nearly 600 babies statewide this season.
The respiratory virus presents as a common cold for most adults, but can cause severe illness in babies and some young children, and is the most common cause of hospitalization in infants in the United States.
As of Wednesday, about 1,402 people in Wisconsin have been hospitalized with RSV this respiratory viral season, 580 of whom are children under the age of 2, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.
The vaccine being promoted by health officials, called Abrysvo, is the first of its kind. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in August, following clinical trials that found the new vaccine significantly reduced the risk of severe infection from RSV in infants during their first six months of life. It was recommended in September by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for use in people who are 32 through 36 weeks pregnant between September and January.
“(This vaccine) provides the baby protection at a time when they could be vulnerable to serious illness,” said DHS Respiratory Disease Epidemiologist Tom Haupt.
The push by health officials comes as they say RSV levels remain high in Wisconsin and as other respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and influenza continue to circulate this viral season. This season, RSV levels seem to be peaking later than in previous seasons, Haupt said.
Still, RSV cases do not appear to have surged as heavily as they did last season, when an early wave of RSV cases swamped children’s hospitals. Last season, RSV cases peaked in November 2022. At that time, the Children’s Wisconsin hospital in Wauwatosa was reporting more than 50 children hospitalized with RSV on an average day.
This season, Children’s Wisconsin has reported averages of 20 to 30 children per day hospitalized with RSV, for each of the last eight weeks, according to data provided by Children’s Wisconsin spokesperson Ashley Janzen.
State health officials are hopeful that RSV levels may start to decline soon, pointing to signs that RSV levels are leveling off.
“We’re hoping that we’re approaching a peak,” Haupt told reporters during a Wednesday press briefing. “We should know more by the end of the week.”
It’s unclear exactly what percentage of pregnant women eligible for the vaccine in Wisconsin have gotten it since the start of the respiratory viral season. But state health officials estimate about 3,500 pregnant people have gotten the vaccine as of Sunday, said Stephanie Schauer, immunization program coordinator at the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. To put that in perspective, an average of about 5,000 babies are born each month to Wisconsin parents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nationally, about 12% of pregnant people eligible for the vaccine have received it since late September.
For infants whose mothers did not get the new vaccine, they can still reduce their chances of getting very sick from RSV by receiving a new monoclonal antibody shot recommended by the CDC in August called Beyfortus, though the drug is in short supply. USA Today reported in October that one of the drug’s makers, Sanofi, blamed “unprecedented demand” for the shortages.
For those babies whose mothers receive the vaccine at least two weeks before giving birth, they do not require follow-up shots of the antibody drug.
State health officials recommend that pregnant people talk with their doctor about any questions they have about the new vaccine. The FDA is requiring the vaccine’s maker to do additional studies that will look more closely at the potential risk of preterm births. In clinical trials, slightly more preterm births were observed among people who received the vaccine than among people who received a placebo, although the differences were not statistically significant, according to the FDA. The vaccine was approved for use later in pregnancy to reduce the potential risk of preterm birth, the FDA says.