Monday, May 27, 2024

Toby Gould was an early adopter. In September, Mr. Gould, 78, went to a pharmacy in Hyannis, Mass., to get one of the new vaccines for respiratory syncytial virus, known as R.S.V. He has asthma, which would heighten his risk of serious illness if he were to be infected.

Carol Kerton, 64, knew R.S.V. could be dangerous: Her 3-year-old granddaughter had such a severe case that she was taken to an emergency room. Ms. Kerton was vaccinated in September at a local supermarket in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Sam Delson, 63, received the R.S.V. vaccine last month in Sacramento. His doctor recommended it, he said, “because I’m over 60 and have a somewhat weakened immune system” after a long-ago bout with cancer.

They are the exceptions. So far, only about 15 percent of Americans over 60 have received one of the two new R.S.V. shots, which the Food and Drug Administration approved in May and are the first-ever vaccines against the disease. Just 16 percent more said they definitely planned to, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It’s a new vaccine, and people are trying to figure out whether they need it or not,” said Dr. Preeti Malani, a geriatrician and infectious disease specialist at University of Michigan Health.

That is if they know about the R.S.V. vaccines at all. A national survey this summer of people ages 60 through 80 found that nearly half hadn’t heard about them.

The C.D.C. recommends the R.S.V. vaccines for people over 60, after having individual discussions with their health care providers, something called “shared clinical decision-making.” Medicare Part D, Medicaid and most private insurers will cover the entire cost.

The fact that older people are vulnerable to R.S.V. is an unfamiliar concept to many people. For decades, the virus was mostly considered a threat to infants and young children. Most physicians, “when they went to medical school, were taught that R.S.V. was a pediatric illness,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “It’s still the leading cause of hospitalization in infants in the U.S.”

But the F.D.A. estimates that the virus sends 60,000 to 160,000 people over 65 to hospitals each year and causes 6,000 to 10,000 deaths. Other published estimates are even higher.

“It is a very contagious virus,” Dr. Malani said. Though children can become quite ill, more often, “a 4-year-old with a runny nose could have R.S.V. and not become very sick; it looks like a regular cold,” she said. However, she added: “The grandparents could get pneumonia.”

The risk of becoming seriously ill from R.S.V. increases markedly with age. Hospitalization rates rise sharply for those in their 70s and 80s, especially for those with chronic heart and lung diseases like asthma, heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“There will always be hiccups,” he said. “But in general it’s gone very well, and we’re not hearing that there are access problems for patients.”

Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, co-director of the Cornell Institute for Disease and Disaster Preparedness, was more cautious. Fifteen percent is “a lot better than zero,” he said, pointing out that until last summer, there was no prevention available against R.S.V. But, he said, “if you’d like to stamp out R.S.V., that’s not going to happen with this level of coverage.”

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