Nov. 17, 2023 – A new medicine that can help infants avoid hospitalization due to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) has been in short supply as cases of the illness surge in some parts of the country.
The CDC announced Thursday that an additional 770,000 doses of a monoclonal antibody treatment, which can be given to babies shortly after birth, are being sent to doctor’s offices and hospitals. The drug is sold under the brand name Beyfortus and can reduce the risk of serious complications from RSV by as much as 75%, the FDA indicated in its July approval announcement.
The preventive treatment is considered a breakthrough because RSV hospitalizes between 1% and 3% of all babies under 1 year old annually. Most children have been infected with RSV by the time they are 2 years old.
Usually, symptoms are mild, such as a runny nose and fatigue. But for some, the virus can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, a dangerous lung condition that causes wheezing and makes it hard to breathe, the CDC says.
In severe cases, babies need to be admitted to the hospital to receive additional oxygen, fluids due to dehydration, and sometimes even have a breathing tube inserted or get help breathing from a machine called a mechanical ventilator.
The announcement of additional doses of Beyfortus comes as some areas report overwhelming rates of RSV. In Texas, Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth posted on Facebook recently that people should expect long wait times at its emergency room as hundreds of people seek care there daily, and the RSV positivity rate reached 33%.
“Many infants are suffering from severe RSV with hospitals struggling to find beds for them all,” read an announcement from Cook Children’s that was published in Spanish.
In central North Carolina, a spike in RSV cases prompted the Cone Health system to begin requiring masks and banning children ages 12 and under from visiting vulnerable areas, such as labor and delivery wards and neonatal intensive units, at one of its hospitals and also at a medical center.
Nationally, more than 6,800 positive cases of RSV were reported to the CDC the week of Nov. 11. The rate of tests for RSV coming back positive for children and adults combined has nearly doubled during the course of the past month. Babies who are less than 1 year old are the most likely to visit emergency departments for RSV, according to CDC data for the week of Nov. 11.
But RSV rates are still well below numbers seen this time last year, when a record-setting early wave of the virus overwhelmed pediatric wards of hospitals. This fall, health officials expressed hope that this may be the least severe RSV season ever, due to the approval of Beyfortus and to a new vaccine that can be given to pregnant women who then pass protection against RSV to their unborn babies.
The CDC said it has been asking doctors to encourage pregnant patients to get the vaccine, so babies are protected when they are born, rather than relying on Beyfortus. Beyfortus is approved for babies up to 1 year old and for some children up to 2 years old who are at high risk of severe RSV.