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State Health Officer promotes new vaccine to combat high respiratory virus rates

Alabama this week had the highest rate of respiratory syncytial virus in the nation, tied only with Georgia, something State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris says he hopes can be improved with the rollout of a new vaccine.

During a meeting Thursday of the Alabama State Committee of Public Health, Harris shared with committee members that the current flu season has seen a sizable number of RSV cases when compared to other states.

“We’re still in the midst of respiratory virus season, and as you know, the flu numbers look a little bit better in Alabama over the past week, although Alabama and Georgia, overall, still have the highest respiratory virus rates in the country,” Harris said. “We’re working very hard to get folks vaccinated still in this time of declining vaccinations.”

A common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms, RSV cases typically resolve themselves with no medical treatment, though can prove serious for young children, the elderly or the immunocompromised.

Harris told Alabama Daily News that while Alabama’s rates for RSV were among the highest in the nation, it was still a “regular flu season” and not “particularly worse than usual.”

What he said was different this year, however, was that last fall, the Centers for Disease Control had approved and recommended a new RSV vaccine for adults 60 and over, as well as a new RSV immunization for babies and toddlers, something he hoped to bring more awareness to.

“Until this year, there was no monoclonal antibody for babies, there was no vaccine for adults,” he said. 

“Previously, if you had a really sick kid, you’d put them in the hospital, test them for RSV, and then you would try to treat the symptoms. There’s some treatments available, but there was no way to prevent (it) until now, so we’re getting much better visibility on RSV.”

The main hurdle in utilizing the new vaccine and immunization medications, Harris said, was bringing awareness to their existence.

The rollout of the new vaccine and immunization has seen some speed bumps as, with any new vaccine, private health care providers have not universally agreed to cover the costs for consumers, a process Harris said typically takes about a year after CDC recommendation.

On the commercial market, the RSV vaccines can carry a price tag of between $180 and $295 per dose, potentially deterring individuals whose insurance does not cover it.

The general decline in vaccination rates in Alabama during the pandemic posed a problem to the RSV vaccines usage rate in the state, with Harris saying they have not been utilized as much as the Alabama Department of Public Health would like to see.

“The uptake is not as high as we would like,” he said. “The (RSV immunization), there were real supply issues at first – they just didn’t produce enough – and so it’s been slow rolling. Now, the (RSV immunization) is available just like a vaccine would be through our Vaccines for Children program, and then it’s also on the commercial market as well.”

According to the CDC, RSVs cause approximately 6,000 to 10,000 deaths a year among those 65 and older, up to 160,000 hospitalizations of those 65 and older, and up to 80,000 hospitalizations among children 4 and younger.

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