Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) shows increase but an experimental vaccine offers hope

There has been a noticeable increase in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a respiratory virus that infects the lungs and breathing passages, in certain areas of the country.  The National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) reports that in the United States, nearly all children become infected with RSV by age two, with 75,000 to 125,000 of them hospitalized each year. In addition to children, older people are at risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that it causes the deaths of 14,000 people over sixty-five annually in the U.S.

Globally, RSV affects an estimated 64 million people and causes 160,000 deaths each year.

Recently, a new vaccine, DS-Cav1, was engineered and developed by NIAID researchers and is showing promise because it builds antibodies that neutralize it. 

What is RSV?

RSV is a respiratory virus whose symptoms are like those of a cold. In most cases, the virus runs its course within one or two weeks. However, for the very young and the elderly, it can be very serious. Among children age one and under, it is the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia. Bronchiolitis is an inflammation of the smaller airways in the lung. Pneumonia is a full-fledged infection in the lungs.

CDC reports that RSV is a leading cause of respiratory illness in those over age sixty-five. An older person with asthma, congestive heart failure or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is especially at risk. Children and adults with compromised immune systems are in more danger of serious consequences resulting from the virus.

Symptoms and causes

Among the cold-like symptoms of RSV are barking cough, sneezing, wheezing, fever and a runny nose. Other symptoms may include difficulty drinking, irritability and lethargy. A bluish color may appear around the fingernails, mouth and lips. Sleep apnea, or stopping breathing while sleeping, may also occur. A decrease in appetite may also be noticed.

It is rare that all the symptoms appear at the same time. They tend to arrive in stages. Symptoms usually appear between four and six days after infection.

RSV is spread when germs travel directly or indirectly from one person to another. If an infected person coughs, sneezes or touches another person, the virus can be transmitted. Additionally, RSV can be transmitted through objects an infected person has touched, such as a doorknob. Winter, fall and spring are the most likely seasons for RSV to spread.

The new vaccine

The most promising recently tested vaccine, DS-Cav1, was selected for clinical evaluation and subsequently manufactured for clinical testing. It has shown positive results in a Phase 1 clinical trial. An interim analysis of study data showed that one dose of the investigational vaccine prompted large increases in RSV-neutralizing antibodies that were sustained for several months. Although still in the trial phase, the results prompted the director of NIAID to announce that the structure-based strategy for developing a successful RSV vaccine may bring the decades-long effort within reach.


There are methods to prevent spreading RSV that both those who may spread it and those at risk for infection can take. Anyone with cold-like symptoms should cover coughs and sneezes. Hands should be washed for at least twenty seconds with soap and close contact with others should be avoided. Additionally, cups and eating utensils should not be shared.

Those at risk should also wash hands and avoid being around sick people. Avoiding touching the face with unwashed hands is advised, as is making sure surfaces are clean before contact is made. High risk areas to avoid include crowded places and child care centers. To learn more about diagnosis, treatment and prevention of RSV, log on to and visit the Infectious Disease Institute

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