You may have read about the RSV vaccines (shots) approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in May 2023. On June 29, 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed up with an announcement. Everyone age 60 and older who is at risk for getting very sick from RSV can get vaccinated, after talking with their doctor.
Mini Kamboj has answers to some frequently asked questions about the RSV vaccines. Dr. Kamboj is Chief Medical Epidemiologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK).
What is RSV? How does it spread?
RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus. It’s a very contagious (spreads easily) respiratory illness that spreads in the fall and winter months.
Most people get just a mild illness from an RSV infection. However, RSV can make older adults and young children very sick. It also can make people with medical conditions, such as weakened immune systems, very ill.
RSV spreads by:
- Inhaling droplets when people cough or sneeze. Masks protect you from many common respiratory illnesses, including RSV.
- Touching a surface that has droplets from a cough or a sneeze from an infected person. If you touch that surface, and then touch your nose, mouth, or eyes, you could get infected. You can kill RSV by cleaning your hands with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Is RSV common? Will RSV harm me?
RSV is a common illness, most often during the fall and winter. RSV feels like a cold for most people and lasts 1 to 2 weeks.
For some people, RSV does more harm. RSV can lead to lower respiratory tract disease. That can cause pneumonia (lung infection) or bronchiolitis (swelling of small airways of the lungs).
Lower respiratory tract disease caused by RSV is more dangerous for infants and older adults. It’s also more harmful for people who have a weakened immune system. That includes some people who have cancer or who were treated for cancer.
Can I get an RSV vaccine now?
The vaccine was approved by the FDA and recommended by the CDC. It’s expected to be available in the fall of 2023, when RSV is more common.
Who is eligible to get an RSV vaccine?
People age 60 and older can get an RSV vaccine after talking with their doctor to see if it’s right for them. People younger than age 60, including people with cancer, are not eligible for the vaccine.
These are the 2 RSV vaccines that will be available:
- Arexvy, made by GlaxoSmithKline
- Abrysvo™, made by Pfizer
How well do the RSV vaccines work?
The vaccines work very well. Both vaccines are more than 85% effective at preventing lower respiratory tract disease caused by RSV.
RSV is very hard to avoid completely. It’s so important to get the vaccine so it can lower your chances of getting really sick with lower respiratory tract disease.
Will I need a shot every year, just like the flu shot, to prevent RSV?
For now, you will only need 1 dose of the vaccine. We don’t know if seasonal doses will be needed in the future.
Should I get the RSV vaccine if I have cancer or if I had cancer?
RSV vaccines are safe for people with cancer who are eligible to get the shot. The vaccines are non-live vaccines that contain a part of the RSV virus (called a protein). The vaccine does not contain a whole virus or a live virus. The RSV vaccine cannot cause an infection in people with a weakened immune system.
If you are at least age 60 and were treated for cancer, talk with your MSK doctor about getting an RSV vaccine. Cancer and cancer treatment can weaken your immune system. It’s important to avoid any virus, infection, or other sickness, including RSV.
The research studies, also known as clinical trials, for the RSV vaccines did not include people with weakened immune systems.
What are the side effects of the RSV vaccine?
The vaccines made by GSK and Pfizer have similar side effects. Most common side effects are mild and go away after a few days. People who had the vaccines reported:
- Pain where they get the shot
- Fatigue (feeling more weak or tired than usual)
- Muscle pain
Rare cases of a neurological syndrome were observed in clinical trials and the FDA will continue to closely monitor this.
Can I get the RSV vaccine at MSK?
The vaccine will be available in the fall of 2023. We will know then if we will vaccinate our patients against RSV. We will share these plans with you in the fall.