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RSV vaccine available for older Michiganders, but many don’t know of it

older woman
RSV usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but it can be deadly for the very young and for older adults, especially those with chronic conditions. (Shutterstock)
  • The RSV virus kills up to 10,000 older Americans each year
  • The FDA approved the first RSV vaccine for older adults this year, as well as an immunization for young children
  • A U-M poll suggests about half of older Americans — those most likely to die of RSV — aren’t aware of the vaccine

A long-awaited vaccine for older adults now protects against the potentially deadly respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV — but nearly half of people in this age group did not know it’s available.

And a significant number of the most vulnerable in this group said they aren’t interested in the vaccine anyway, according to a National Poll on Healthy Aging by University of Michigan researchers.


The U-M survey found 52 percent of the 1,850 U.S. respondents ages 60 to 80 knew a new vaccine was an option to protect them against RSV.


That’s a concern for doctors who each year see patients stricken by the virus struggling to breathe inside their hospitals and clinics, said Dr. Dennis Cunningham, medical director of infection control and prevention at Henry Ford Health.

“If you're older, if you have bad lungs from smoking or some chronic disease, you can really wind up having trouble breathing, and even need to be on a breathing tube or a breathing machine,” Cunningham told Bridge Michigan.

RSV is a common virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages. It typically causes just mild, cold-like symptoms, and has infected nearly all children by age two. 

But it can be deadly in some circumstances, especially to infants and people 60 and older, especially those with chronic heart or lung disease or weakened immune systems.

An estimated 60,000 to 160,000 adults in the U.S. 65 years and older are hospitalized each year, and as many as 10,000 die from RSV infection, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In May, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Arexvy by drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline for people 60 and older. 

In July, it approved Beyfortus by AstraZeneca for infants facing their first RSV season and children up to 24 months of age whose immune systems are compromised. (Beyfortus is not a vaccine but rather a monoclonal antibody —  laboratory-created proteins that mimic the body’s immune system.)

Because those products are now recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are typically covered for older Americans by Medicare, Medicaid and most private health insurance  plans.

The national U-M poll of 1,850 people aged 60 to 80 was conducted in July and parts of August, and the results are being released as the vaccine arrives in pharmacies, clinics and doctors’ offices.


That about half of the people surveyed weren’t aware of the vaccine “suggest a need for public health officials, primary care providers, pharmacies and  others to target their outreach and awareness-building efforts,” Dr. Preeti Malani, M.D., a physician at Michigan Medicine who is trained in geriatrics and infectious disease, said in a news release about the poll. Malani also is an advisor on the poll.

Nearly 35 percent of poll respondents with chronic health conditions said they were not interested in getting the vaccine, whether or not they had heard of it before being  polled. 

The National Poll began in 2017 to study the health of older Americans, their health care and the impacts of health policy on them. It is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, and supported by  AARP and Michigan Medicine.

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