The United States’ quick return to normalcy following the dissemination of COVID-19 vaccines underscores the importance of making health care innovations accessible to all. The Biden administration has helped us bounce back quickly by making sure that no one would miss the chance to get vaccinated based on their income or insurance coverage.
As we continue to keep COVID-19 vaccinations easily accessible to everyone, we should similarly prioritize accessibility in the fight against another dangerous virus. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a highly contagious respiratory disease among infants that can cause complications such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis (inflammation of small lung airways). It is a common misconception that RSV is only severe in preterm babies; but 72% of infants hospitalized for RSV were previously healthy with no underlying conditions.
I wish these products had been available when I contracted RSV as a preterm baby. The first several months of my life were spent in the NICU along with my twin brother who also developed RSV. For months, doctors and nurses were unsure whether we’d ever be able to leave the hospital. The disease is so scary because it is hard to distinguish from cold symptoms, but the virus can be deadly serious. Every year in the U.S., about 58,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized due to RSV infection, and up to 500 die. My brother and I received tremendous healthcare, but I know not everyone is so fortunate.
This virus is unpredictable, and it sends 500,000 U.S. children under five to the emergency room each year. It is most prevalent during the winter virus season (typically November– March), but outbreaks can occur without warning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently warned that we are seeing a late spring-early summer spike in RSV cases among babies who would have normally gotten sick over the winter had COVID-19 restrictions not been in place.
Luckily, experts are developing preventative products to directly deliver the antibodies necessary to help protect all infants from RSV. We know from the COVID-19 pandemic that immunization technology is rapidly evolving, and that progression of technology is allowing scientists to develop new ways to fight RSV. Some anti-RSV products in development will deliver antibodies directly to the infant instead of forcing the immune system to develop antibodies like a traditional vaccine. Regardless of the technology these products use, if science demonstrates that they will prevent hospitalization and death, the CDC should welcome these innovations as an opportunity to help protect all infants from RSV.
The majority of American children will not have the opportunity for protection against RSV if the CDC chooses not to embrace scientific advancements and incorporate new preventative products on its recommended childhood vaccination schedule and incorporate them into the federal Vaccines for Children (VFC) program. For the more than 40 million U.S. children who are eligible for Medicaid, lack insurance, or do not have sufficient insurance, the VFC program is often their only way of accessing protection against deadly childhood illnesses. It is up to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to decide whether the VFC program will be able to offer products to help protect all infants from RSV, including to the Medicaid-eligible and Native American/Alaskan Native children who rely heavily on VFC and have an increased risk of contracting severe RSV.
As a registered nurse, I know firsthand how important CDC support for immunizations is. It is critical that any product intended for broad use across a specific population, such as newborns, be both recommended by the ACIP so that private insurance companies cover the product, and offered through VFC just like any other immunization in our public health toolkit. If the CDC excludes preventative products against RSV from its recommended immunization schedule and the VFC program, it will impose labor-intensive administrative requirements that will make it exceedingly difficult for physicians’ offices to administer these products and help protect all infants. Those extraneous hoops we must jump through, combined with low-income families’ inability to afford products not covered by VFC and parents’ understandable hesitancy to give their infants a product not supported by the CDC like other immunizations, will make these new products a perk for well-off children instead of a tool to improve public health for all infants.
We owe a great deal to the Biden administration for its proactive measures to immunize everyone against COVID-19. Imagine how much higher the COVID-19 death toll would be right now if the federal government had not made the COVID-19 vaccine accessible to all. I hope that the Biden administration, especially Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, heed the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic and make sure that preventative products against RSV are equally accessible to all infants. We need action to ensure that the CDC incorporates all preventative products, like those that are being developed to help protect all infants against RSV, in its recommended childhood vaccination schedule and the Vaccines for Children program.
Celine Graae is a registered nurse in West Hartford.