Professionals talk about RSV

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Professionals talk about RSV

Prof. Dr. Louis Bont

Paediatrician, infectiologist immunologist at UMC Utrecht

“Unfortunately, few parents know about RSV. RSV infections cause a heavy burden on children and their parents. Every winter, paediatric wards and intensive care units are filled with babies infected with the virus. However, RSV does not only affect young children, the elderly are also more susceptible to severe RSV disease, especially if they suffer from heart or lung disease. RSV patients have trouble breathing because the virus damages

the airways, but also because of the immune response against the virus.

RSV is very unfair, because most children dying from RSV infection live in developing countries  due to lack of intensive care facilities. There is no vaccine or medicine to treat RSV yet, but WHO and pharmaceutical industry are

working hard at it. Currently, there are two important developments in preventing serious RSV disease in children:

1. a maternal vaccine. Pregnant women are vaccinated to generate antibodies against the virus which are subsequently transmitted to the baby through the umbilical  cord and breast milk. This vaccine is similar to the maternal vaccine against Whooping cough (Pertussis). It protects the child from severe RSV infection during the first months of life.

2. a new antibody. This antibody is given by injection to new-borns and – like the maternal vaccine – protects them from severe RSV infection for several months.

We expect these new preventive immunisation methods to be available within the next 5 years. In the meantime it is important to raise public awareness about RSV. This will improve care for infected children and accelerate vaccine development.

Anne Teirlinck

Epidemiologist respiratory infections at RIVM (Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment)

At RIVM I work at the Centre for Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology and Surveillance. We analyse and monitor the occurrence and trends in infectious diseases in the Netherlands.  The focus of my work is on respiratory infections. One of the things we do is register the number of people in the Netherlands with flu or flu like symptoms on a weekly basis. The symptoms of RSV infections are quite similar to those of the flu and lab tests are necessary to distinguish the RSV cases. Because the severity of infection varies a lot, we collect RSV incidence data at hospitals as well as GP practices.

RSV Vaccine
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against RSV yet. However, there are quite a few vaccines in development. If one of them makes it to the market, it is important to know who needs it most. In order to prepare for potential vaccine introduction we need to learn more about the risks groups of severe RSV. That is why we are actively involved in the RESCEU study on the RSV burden of disease in Europe. Once the vaccine is introduction we need also need to monitor the effects of the vaccine. Again, we will do this together with various healthcare partners like GP practices and hospitals.

To improve RSV surveillance in general we cooperate with international public health institutions, mainly in Europe but also in other parts of the world. We need each other to gain better understanding of RSV, to share knowledge and expertise and to follow global developments in the field of RSV.

My personal experience with RSV
I do not work with RSV patients directly, but from the experiences of others I know about the impact severe RSV disease can have on patients and their families. I am therefore happy that through my work I can make a contribution to generate more knowledge and understanding about RSV.


Mwanajuma Ngama

Clinical Officer at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Kilifi in Kenya.

RSV in Kenya

I have been working as a clinical officer for 20 years, and have been involved in the RSV project at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi, Kenya, since it started in 2002. Across Kenya we mainly see high numbers of children admitted to the hospital diagnosed with pneumonia or bronchiolitis caused by an RSV infection during two seasonal outbreaks that occur at times that differ from the East to the West of the country. On the coast of Kenya, where our hospital is located, the RSV season starts during the second rainy season and usually peaks in January and February, when it is hot and dry. Elsewhere further west it occurs during the first rainy season around March to July. Many people are not aware of RSV infections and the impact of this disease; it is the biggest cause of hospital admissions with pneumonia in children under 5 years of age worldwide. When a child is diagnosed with an RSV infection parents get some information from the general practitioner or pediatrician, but in public health facilities they are often too busy to properly educate parents on this condition, due to the high workload.

Treatment with limited resources

Our hospital in Kilifi has a high dependency unit, which is not the same as an intensive care unit (ICU), with access to ventilator machines. In Kenya there are only around 10 public hospitals with an ICU. There are also private and mission hospitals which offer ventilator machines, but most parents can’t afford to go to these facilities. In Kilifi, when a child with pneumonia or bronchiolitis is in urgent need for oxygen support they are managed at the high dependency unit where we can offer high oxygen flow by use of a ventilation mask. When this is not enough, we could transfer the child to a hospital with an ICU at one hour drive away, but we prefer to continue treatment of the child at our hospital and optimize the treatment of comorbidities. Before transfer is possible we first have to stabilize the child and inquire if there is an available ICU bed. During stabilization often children either improve and continue management at our hospital, or get more ill and pass away.

Not only are our treatment options limited, but also the preventive measures. In Europe children at high risk (i.e. premature babies) for RSV bronchiolitis can get Palivizumab to prevent an RSV infection, but it is very expensive. Because many parents can’t afford it this is not being offered at our hospital.

Awareness and education

By use of community engagement activities the KEMRI Wellcome Trust Research Programme tries to create more awareness on RSV among the public. There is a weekly radio program (Jukwaa la Utafiti) in the local radio station where health issues and health research are discussed, and people can call in and ask questions. We also try to engage with the community via a network of community representatives, elected by the community, who create a bridge between the community and the research that is being done at the KEMRI Wellcome Trust.

There is much room for improvement in the education of the general public on RSV. As doctors often lack time to provide information during sick visits, it would be useful to give this information during the Maternal and Child Health clinic visits and at the health centers and dispensaries, which provide outpatient services for simple ailments such as a common cold.