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Kansas Researchers Are Helping Test A Vaccine Against A Virus That Causes Pneumonia

David Condos
Kansas News Service

Parts of the U.S., including Kansas and Missouri, are seeing an unusual summertime uptick in respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

You know the drill. Runny nose, coughing, sneezing.

Most of the time, when we pick up respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, we write it off as a cold. The flu, if it really makes us miserable. We sniffle our way through. We don’t get diagnosed — which is why most people have never heard of the virus.

But later in life, RSV spreads more easily into your lower respiratory tract.

“When you get above 65, it starts getting much more severe,” said Terry Poling, medical director at a Wichita clinical site that is testing a vaccine against the virus. “When people die from a, quote, ‘viral pneumonia,’ it’s usually RSV.”

Kansas City and other parts of the U.S. are seeing an unusual summertime increase in RSV.

Here’s the lowdown on a virus that almost all of us have had at least once by the time we’re toddlers, and on the vaccine trials in our region.

RSV doesn’t kill as many people as the flu, but it does kill.

Each year, RSV kills around 14,000 older adults in the U.S., and hospitalizes somewhere around 180,000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

People with lung disease, heart disease and other chronic conditions are vulnerable, too, as are the very young. RSV kills an estimated 100 to 500 children a year and lands nearly 60,000 in the hospital.

As a comparison, the flu can easily hospitalize twice as many people in a year. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blames the flu for between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually since 2010. (Those figures would be even worse, but the flu vaccine blunts the impact.)

If you’ve been hearing about RSV lately, there’s a reason.

The virus appears to be on the move in Kansas, but especially in neighboring Missouri and Oklahoma, and states farther south like Arkansas and Texas.

Normally, RSV picks up each fall and wanes in the spring. But when COVID-19 hit, people masked up, found a new love for hand-washing and kept their work colleagues and teachers at Zoom distance.

RSV couldn’t spread much. But after the COVID-19 vaccine came out and cases slowed, more people ventured out, leaving their masks at home.

RSV regained its footing, and by June, the CDC put out an alert and recommended doctors test for it in respiratory patients who test negative for COVID-19.

Five clinics in Kansas and Kansas City are helping test a vaccine.

The Alliance for Multispecialty Research is seeking thousands of people over the age of 60 — including in Wichita, El Dorado, Newton and Kansas City — for clinical trials sponsored by Janssen Vaccines.

This is Phase 3, the final stage of trials before potential review by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration. Some participants will get the vaccine. Some will get a placebo.

Other companies have been chasing an RSV vaccine, too. In 2016, an advocacy group funded by the pharmaceutical industry wrote that dozens of candidates were in the development or testing phases.

There’s no RSV vaccine yet, but these other shots help you dodge pneumonia, too.

RSV is just one way you can get a nasty case of pneumonia. Other bugs can give it to you, too.

The flu. COVID-19. Pneumococcus bacteria. Whooping cough. Measles.

Though an RSV vaccine could still take years to materialize, vaccines against each of these are already on the shelves of a hospital, pharmacy or public health department near you.

Yet not even half of Kansans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. About half get an annual flu shot. Three quarters get the pneumococcal shots recommended at age 65.

Rates for childhood vaccines such as measles are higher, but new Georgetown University research finds kids across the country fell behind on shots during the pandemic. Time to catch up, pediatricians say.

“After being locked away, viruses are starting to circulate again,” said Barbara Pahud, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City. “If you can get RSV even though normally it circulates in the winter, why not measles, varicella or anything else?”

Got the sniffles? Make no assumptions. Get a free COVID test.

Yes, COVID-19 cases fell several months in a row. But the disease is surging again, fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.

With that in mind, if you get the sniffles, it could be RSV or another common cold-type virus. But it could also be COVID-19, which has already killed 614,000 people nationwide and 5,300 in Kansas. Getting a free COVID-19 test is easy, and public officials beg you to do it.

Beds are filling up again and hospitals in Kansas City have already gone back to turning away transfer requests from smaller facilities, as they did last winter.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen writes about how the world is transforming around us, from topsoil loss and invasive species to climate change. She aims to explain why these stories matter to Kansas, and to report on the farmers, ranchers, scientists and other engaged people working to make Kansas more resilient. Email me at celia@kcur.org.