Vaccination is the single most effective strategy to prevent severe illness from respiratory viruses this fall and winter season. I’ve said it before, and despite all the background noise, it remains true. Vaccines and antimicrobials ushered in the modern era of medicine and have saved more lives in the last century than any other innovative medical technology.
Vaccines are safe and effective and have undergone rigorous clinical and post-marketing reviews. Take COVID-19 vaccines: In the United States alone, hundreds of millions of doses have been administered, primarily using mRNA technology. It is estimated that COVID-19 vaccines have saved over 3 million lives in the U.S. in the last three years, not to mention preventing 18 million hospitalizations.
Today, the United States has the most robust vaccine safety surveillance system in our history. Surveillance infrastructure like the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System and V-safe have recorded and transparently reported over 1 million COVID-19 vaccine safety events, the vast majority of which have been minor. For those rare but important vaccine safety signals that have been identified, such as myocarditis and anaphylaxis, early public reporting and appropriate mitigation strategies have been the norm.
Now we are entering our fourth COVID-19 fall and winter and the first season in which we have vaccines for all three major annual viral respiratory illnesses – influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus.
Everyone ages 6 months and older is recommended to receive a seasonal flu vaccine and an updated monovalent COVID-19 vaccine, regardless of previous vaccination status. For some groups, including young children and those with a weakened immune system, an additional dose or doses may be indicated. The updated COVID-19 and flu vaccines can be administered safely together and also along with other recommended vaccines. The main goal is to reduce the risk of serious illness, such as hospitalization or death. A secondary goal is the reduce the risk of infection, viral spread, and impacts on work and school routines.
New this year is the availability of RSV immunizations to help reduce the burden of serious lower respiratory tract infections in infants, young children and older people. RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization among infants and a leading cause of hospitalization among people aged 60 and older in the United States.
The FDA has approved and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that all pregnant people should be offered an RSV vaccine between 32 and 36 weeks of pregnancy during this RSV season to reduce the risk of serious RSV illness in the infant after birth. Using a shared decision-making approach, two RSV vaccines are also now available for people ages 60 years and older. Finally, nirsevimab, a long-acting monoclonal antibody, has been recommended to prevent serious RSV disease in all infants under 8 months in their first RSV season and certain high-risk young children aged 8 to 19 months entering their second RSV season.
Now is the time to talk to your health care provider to find out about vaccines recommended for you and your family.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.