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  • U.S. pharmacy chains are offering appointments for older adults to receive a vaccine to protect against RSV.
  • This year is the first time a vaccine for RSV has been approved in the U.S.
  • RSV is a virus that affects millions in the U.S. each year.

With the fall respiratory virus season approaching, major pharmacy chains in the United States have started offering appointments for people to receive the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) vaccine.

Walgreens announced on August 1 that eligible people 60 years and older can visit the pharmacy or schedule an appointment on its app or online.

Rite Aid and CVS will also soon be offering the RSV vaccine, reports CNN.

Some healthcare provider offices may also offer the RSV vaccine, but many may choose not to, because of the cost of keeping the vaccine on hand. However, some pharmacies may offer vaccination clinics in the community.

On May 3, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine to protect against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection.

The vaccine was developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) for use in adults 60 and older.

This is the world’s first fully approved vaccine for older adults that targets RSV. In securing U.S. approval of its vaccine Arexvy, GSK beat out rival drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna. The FDA approved Pfizer’s RSV vaccine on May 31.

GSK’s chief scientific officer Tony Wood said in a statement that the FDA approval “marks a turning point” in the company’s effort to “reduce the significant burden of RSV.”

London-based GSK said April 26 in a call with investors that it has millions of doses of the RSV vaccine ready to ship.

On June 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended the use of RSV vaccines from GSK and Pfizer for people ages 60 and older. The agency also suggest that people talk to “their healthcare provider about whether RSV vaccination is right for them.”

Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said May 3 in a statement that the approval of GSK’s vaccine is an “important public health achievement to prevent a disease which can be life-threatening.”

“Older adults, in particular those with underlying health conditions, such as heart or lung disease or weakened immune systems, are at high risk for severe disease caused by RSV,” he added.

Dr. Lisa Gibbs, chief of the Division of Geriatric Medicine and Gerontology at UCI Health in Irvine, Calif., said the GSK vaccine will be especially important for older family members who live with young children who are exposed outside the home in daycare centers or schools.

“People are usually infectious a couple of days before symptoms emerge, so one can be exposed without knowing,” she told Healthline.

Parts of the United States saw a surge in RSV cases in children and older adults last fall, partly due to the dropping of masking and other COVID-19 public health measures that also slowed the spread of RSV.

Gibbs explained RSV infection is common and people can be infected multiple times throughout their life.

“Mild RSV cold-like symptoms are similar to those of other viruses, so we may not know the prevalence in our patient populations,” she said. “However, for many the illness may be more severe and cause a lower respiratory tract disease or pneumonia.”

Each year the virus kills 6,000 to 10,000 older adults and 100 to 300 children younger than five, according to the CDC.

In addition, 60,000 to 160,000 older adults and 58,000 to 80,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized each year due to RSV, the agency said.

Dr. Roopa K Rajgopal, a geriatrician with AltaMed Health Services Program of All-Inclusive Care for the Elderly (PACE), pointed out that most of the current treatments for RSV infection address the symptoms and provide supportive care.

So “the availability of a vaccine that can greatly reduce the risk of severe infections is promising,” she told Healthline. “We are hoping that the vaccine will decrease mortality and morbidity in the elderly immunocompromised adults from complications of RSV infection.”

The approval of GSK’s vaccine is based on a randomized controlled trial conducted in adults 60 years and older in the United States and other countries, the FDA said in its statement.

This study found that the vaccine was 83% effective at preventing the risk of lower respiratory tract disease caused by RSV. Disease was defined as two or more symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing, cough or need for supplemental oxygen.

Rajgopal said future studies will have to examine how long the protection offered by the vaccine lasts and if a booster dose will be needed.

The most commonly reported side effects in people who received the vaccine were pain at the injection site, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and joint stiffness and pain, the FDA said.

The agency also flagged a potential safety issue. In one study of the vaccine, a person who received the vaccine developed Guillain-Barré syndrome.

This is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system damages nerve cells, resulting in muscle weakness and sometimes paralysis. Most people fully recover from this, although some people will continue to have muscle weakness.

The rate of this disorder is about one or two cases each year in every 100,000 people, according to the National Organization for Rare Disorders. The exact cause is unknown.

The FDA said in its May 3 statement that it will require GSK to continue monitoring people who receive the vaccine to assess the risk of Guillain-Barré syndrome and another condition.

Two people developed Guillain-Barré syndrome (including a variant of this disorder) after receiving the Pfizer RSV vaccine in a large phase 3 clinical trial in older adults.

The company has also asked the FDA to approve an RSV vaccine designed to be given to pregnant people. This vaccine would generate antibodies that would protect both the pregnant person and their newborn.

A vaccine advisory group for the FDA voted May 18 in support of approval for Pfizer’s maternal RSV vaccine. A decision is expected from the FDA in August 2023.

No cases of Guillain-Barré were identified during Moderna’s clinical trial of its RSV vaccine for older adults. The company plans to request approval from the FDA of its vaccine during the first half of this year.