Vaccines now available for RSV prevention

New vaccines have recently been approved for use in older adults and young children to prevent Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), with Western Australian babies being the first to be offered access to a new vaccine to help prevent this leading cause of infant hospitalisation in Australia.

In this month’s blog, we take a closer look at RSV and the new vaccines that will be available for infants and adults in 2024.

What is RSV?

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (or RSV) is a common virus that usually presents as a mild respiratory infection and can affect people of all ages.

The virus infects the airways and lungs and commonly causes coughs and colds during winter. Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing

It can also cause ear infections. While RSV mostly presents as a mild infection, it can lead to life-threatening complications, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

The virus is highly contagious and can spread easily through respiratory droplets released into the air by an infected person coughing, sneezing or talking; or through people touching contaminated surfaces and transferring the virus to their eyes, nose or mouth. It can also spread through hand-to-hand contact with an infected person.

Who is most at risk?

Young children are at a high risk of serious illness from RSV, with 3.6 million children worldwide hospitalised with the virus every year. In Western Australia in 2023, 993 infants were hospitalised with RSV.

In general, four out of every five children hospitalised with RSV will have no underlying health conditions. Aboriginal infants are hospitalised with the virus at 2-3 times the rate of non-Aboriginal infants.

Almost all children will experience at least one RSV infection within their first two years of life.

Those most at risk of serious complications include:

  • Infants aged 12 months and under – especially those aged 6 months and under.
  • Children aged 2 years and under with medical conditions, such as chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease.
  • Children aged 2 years and under who were born pre-term or with a low birth weight.

Older adults are also at a higher risk of RSV, particularly:

  • adults with medical risk factors – including those who are immunocompromised or who have chronic cardiac, respiratory and neurological conditions, diabetes and metabolic disorders, or renal disease; and
  • those aged 75 years and over for non-First Nations adults, or 60 years and over for First Nations adults.

How do you prevent RSV?

The best way to help prevent the spread of the virus is by:

  • Maintaining good personal hygiene by washing hands often with soap and water, using hand sanitizer, and covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your elbow.
  • Avoiding sharing of eating and drinking utensils.
  • Staying home when sick, or wearing a mask when leaving the house and avoiding close contact with others.
  • Regularly cleaning surfaces and items that may be contaminated with disinfectant.

Are there vaccines available?

Up until this year, there were no vaccines available in Australia to help prevent RSV. However, in January 2024, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved Australia’s first vaccine to help fight against the virus.

The Arexvy vaccine is an adjuvanted recombinant RSV vaccine that can be administered as a single dose and given at any time of year. It is available for adults aged 60 years and over through private prescription only. It is highly recommended for:

  • All adults aged 75 years and over.
  • Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander peoples aged 60 to 74 years.
  • Adults aged 60 to 74 years with medical conditions that increase their risk of severe disease.

Earlier this month, and in an Australian first, the Western Australian (WA) Government also announced the rollout of a new RSV vaccine for infants.

The Nirsevimab (or Beyfortus) vaccine was approved by the TGA in November 2023 and will be offered free to all WA babies under eight months old, as well as older children aged 8-19 months at increased risk of severe RSV. This RSV vaccine is given as a single dose and provides protection for at least five months. It is expected to be available from April onwards through GP practices, Community Health Clinics, and Aboriginal Medical Services.

As noted by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance Australia, clinical trials of the Nirsevimab vaccine showed a reduction in RSV-related infant hospitalisations of around 80%, with similar trends observed in Europe last year following the rollout of their infant immunisation programs.

Another vaccine – Abrysvo – is also currently being evaluated as an option for pregnant women in Australia to help protect their unborn babies. This RSV vaccine has already been approved for use in the United States of America. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that, when given to pregnant women, the vaccine was 81.8% effective in preventing severe disease within 90 days of birth and 69.4% effective in preventing severe disease within 180 days of birth.

Are vaccines safe?

Yes. Vaccines given in Australia are perfectly safe and you cannot get the virus from having the relevant vaccine.

Like any vaccine, it is possible that some people may experience a reaction; however, the risk of the vaccines causing serious harm is very low.

As noted by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance Australia, side effects for the Nirsevimab RSV vaccine were uncommon in clinical trials, with the most common side effects experienced being pain, redness, swelling at the injection site, or a rash.

Similarly, reported common side effects for Arexvy were pain and redness at the injection site, fatigue, headache, and muscle pain.

In Australia, all vaccines must pass strict safety testing before being approved for use by the TGA. We also have a national program – AusVaxSafety – that monitors the type and rate of reactions to all vaccines on the National Immunisation Program.

At Illawarra Medical Centre, we utilise the SmartVax system as an additional vaccine safety measure for our patients. SmartVax uses SMS and smartphone technology to actively monitor vaccine safety in real time and feeds that information into the AusVaxSafety program.

Vaccinations at IMC

We will notify our patients as soon as RSV vaccines become available at Illawarra Medical Centre, so keep an eye on our website and Facebook page for details!

In the meantime, should you have any other vaccine requirements or health issues you wish to discuss, book an appointment with one of our GPs. Bookings can be made online or by contacting us on (08) 9208 6400.