As Respiratory Illnesses Rise, Vaccine Access is More Important Than Ever

With flu season around the corner and expected upticks in cases of COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), we can anticipate a perfect storm of respiratory viruses — often referred to as a “tripledemic”. Since these viruses have the potential to cause serious illness and death, the tripledemic has a strong potential of straining hospitals and health systems over the coming months. To mitigate this strain and reduce disease burden, it is more important than ever to ensure that children and adults around the world have access to vaccines. “Vaccines can make a major impact on the number of severe cases of those respiratory infections that we see, especially if the vaccines are utilized in populations that we know are more susceptible to severe disease, like those 65 and older,” says Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a professor and virologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the replication and disease potential of respiratory viruses.

Cumulative percent prevented by increased vaccination [Source: Scenario Modeling Hub]

According to the latest projections from the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, over the next two years, COVID-19 cases are expected to peak in the United States between November and mid-January. Although weekly hospitalizations and deaths are expected to remain comparable to 2022 levels, there is a potential for high numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in the US. Fortunately, the use of updated COVID-19 vaccines — recommended earlier this month by the CDC for everyone 6 months and older — is projected to significantly reduce disease burden.

Flu vaccines are expected to have similar benefits in the coming months. To determine the potential effectiveness of the upcoming year’s vaccine formulation, experts examine the influenza viruses that are circulating in the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season occurs earlier in the year. “It looks like there should be a good match between the vaccines we’re using in the US and the viruses that we expect will move from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere,” says Dr. Pekosz. We also know that it is perfectly safe to receive both vaccines at the same time, with one immune response having no effect on the other. In fact, providing both vaccines during the same health care visit can be an effective way to increase coverage for both immunizations as it removes the need for a second visit.

RSV has not historically received as much attention as other respiratory viruses, though it is a leading cause of pneumonia in young children globally and can cause severe illness in older adults. The FDA approved two vaccines for RSV earlier this year, intended to prevent severe disease among older adults and infants. The CDC recently recommended RSV vaccine for pregnant people toward the end of the pregnancy (between 32 and 36 weeks) to protect newborns from severe illness. Despite this progress, there is still work to be done to ensure that those living in low- and middle-income countries, who account for the overwhelming majority of RSV-associated deaths, have access to these life-saving tools.

The expected uptick in cases of respiratory viruses like COVID-19, the flu, and RSV highlights the importance of optimizing routine immunization programs, both in the US and around the world. Increasing access to these vaccines is an effective way to reduce disease transmission, get us closer to herd immunity, and protect those who are most vulnerable to disease, including young children, older adults, and those who are immunocompromised.