KS researchers testing vaccine to stop pneumonia virus

Get the lowdown on RSV, a virus that becomes more dangerous as we age.



August 6, 2021 - 9:07 AM

You know the drill. Runny nose, coughing, sneezing.

Most of the time, when we pick up respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, we write it off as a cold. The flu, if it really makes us miserable. We sniffle our way through. We don’t get diagnosed — which is why most people have never heard of the virus.

But later in life, RSV spreads more easily into your lower respiratory tract.

“When you get above 65, it starts getting much more severe,” said Terry Poling, medical director at a Wichita clinical site that is testing a vaccine against the virus. “When people die from a, quote, ‘viral pneumonia,’ it’s usually RSV.”

Kansas City and other parts of the U.S. are seeing an unusual summertime increase in RSV.

Here’s the lowdown on a virus that almost all of us have had at least once by the time we’re toddlers, and on the vaccine trials in our region.

RSV doesn’t kill as many people as the flu, but it does kill.

Each year, RSV kills around 14,000 older adults in the U.S., and hospitalizes somewhere around 180,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

People with lung disease, heart disease and other chronic conditions are vulnerable, too, as are the very young. RSV kills an estimated 100 to 500 children a year and lands nearly 60,000 in the hospital.

As a comparison, the flu can easily hospitalize twice as many people in a year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blames the flu for between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually since 2010. (Those figures would be even worse, but the flu vaccine blunts the impact.)

If you’ve been hearing about RSV lately, there’s a reason.

The virus appears to be on the move in Kansas, but especially in neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma, and states farther south like Arkansas and Texas.

Normally, RSV picks up each fall and wanes in the spring. But when COVID-19 hit, people masked up, found a new love for hand-washing and kept their work colleagues and teachers at Zoom distance.

RSV couldn’t spread much. But after the COVID-19 vaccine came out and cases slowed, more people ventured out, leaving their masks at home.

RSV regained its footing, and by June, the CDC put out an alert and recommended doctors test for it in respiratory patients who test negative for COVID-19.