RSV causes 1 in 10 deaths for infants under 6 months — much higher than thought

BOSTON — A new study suggests previous estimates of 120,000 infant deaths from the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are actually much higher. When mortality rates from hospital data are included, the estimation jumps to every 1 in 10 deaths in infants under 6 months.

RSV is a virus that produces cold-like symptoms for a majority of infected people. However, in infants whose immune systems are still developing, the virus can cause severe symptoms. Babies living in low- and middle-income countries with inadequate access to medical care are at a high risk of dying from their viral infection.

The researchers used systemic surveillance to measure the prevalence of RSV among infants who died in hospitals or medical facilities in Lusaka, Zambia. They also partnered with a local mortuary staff to perform nasal swab and PCR tests of infants who lost a child between 4 days and 6 months. In total, the researchers looked for RSV in 2,286 deceased infants.

RSV was present in 7% to 9% of infants under 6 months, with the heaviest presence among infants under 3 months old.

Further, about two-thirds of infant deaths happened in the community, likely because they never received medical care at the hospital and were previously overlooked in other facility-based surveillance.

“The concentration of deaths in young infants less than 3 months old(<3m) is important for two main reasons,” said Christopher Gill, associate professor of global health at BUSPH and coauthor of the study in a press release. “First, it is a reminder that these very young infants with very small airways are at particular risk of RSV infections anatomically. Second, both of the proposed new tools to prevent RSV infections—maternal vaccinations and infant monoclonal antibodies—will be most effective immediately after birth and could wane after.”

Overall, RSV caused at least 2.8% of all infant deaths, and 4.7% of infant deaths outside a medical facility. Most deaths occurred seasonally within the first half of the year and frequently in the most impoverished areas of Lusaka.

The study is published in the journal The Lancet Global Health.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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