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Public Health Messaging on RSV Needs Leg Up for Older Adults

Around three-quarters were at least unsure about getting the RSV shot, prompting calls for better public health messaging.

Six in 10 adults over age 50 haven’t heard of RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, and another 70 percent haven’t heard of the RSV vaccine most experts say could stave off another catastrophic RSV season, according to new data from NORC at the University of Chicago.

RSV is a respiratory illness that can cause cough, runny nose, and labored breathing—in other words, mild cold symptoms. While in most cases, RSV would be a blip on the radar during cold and flu season, it can have disastrous effects on people with certain underlying conditions, infants, and older adults.

Coming off of two backbreaking RSV seasons in a row, the US now has a key weapon in its arsenal against the virus: an RSV vaccine specifically designed for older adults.

But this new poll showed that not many adults actually know about the shot or even RSV at all.

The survey of more than 1,000 adults over age 50 was conducted earlier this summer and showed limited knowledge about or engagement in RSV prevention. The researchers said nearly 60 percent of respondents had heard little to nothing about RSV itself, while 70 percent said they hadn’t heard about the RSV vaccines, which many public health experts had hoped would stave off another catastrophic cold and flu virus season.

These findings were consistent across gender, race/ethnicity, education, and income, the researchers said.

According to Neha Trivedi, a research scientist at NORC and the lead analyst of this data, these findings open up opportunities for better public health messaging and patient outreach.

“Such low awareness of a major health risk, especially for those who suffer from chronic illnesses, raises substantial concerns about people’s health as we head into the fall and winter seasons,” Trivedi said in a statement emailed to journalists.

“As the United States braces itself for another potential ‘tripledemic’ of RSV, flu, and COVID-19, people need to be more aware of these health threats, available vaccines, and other precautions such as washing your hands, staying home when you are sick, and covering your cough.”

In addition to precautions, healthcare and public health leaders will need to understand the level of vaccine hesitancy surrounding the RSV vaccine for older adults (which is separate from the monoclonal antibodies developed for infants).

Right now, about three-quarters of adults over age 50 said they were at least somewhat on the fence about getting the RSV shot. That shook out to 20 percent who said they definitely would not get the vaccine and 53 percent who said they weren’t sure.

Public health messaging should zero in on the factors driving vaccine hesitancy. Nearly half (43 percent) said they were worried about the vaccine’s side effects, while 38 percent had concerns about the vaccine development and approval, and 30 percent said they didn’t think they’d get seriously ill from RSV.

“There is a unique opportunity for outreach and messaging to older adults about RSV and the new vaccine,” Amelia Burke-Garcia, director of Digital Strategy and Outreach for NORC’s Public Health department, said in the press release. “Providers, pharmacists, and public health professionals should increasingly communicate about the risks of RSV and the availability of the new vaccine.”

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