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An Unwanted Viral Visitor: The Rapid Rise of RSV in 2022

Posted by Sara Carpenter on Nov 18, 2022 3:02:39 PM
Sara Carpenter
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With the yearly fading of summer into fall, it’s typical for viruses such as the common cold, RSV, and influenza to spread quickly and send patients to their doctors in droves. This year, however, RSV in particular began to spike earlier than normal, with infections continuing to rise at record rates. To better understand the current state of RSV and how to best diagnose this virus, it’s important to explore the numbers, examine potential causes for this year’s spike, and discuss why molecular testing provides the greatest patient outcomes.

What is RSV?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common respiratory virus that causes cold-like symptoms from which most infected patients recover quickly. However, certain populations such as infants, young children, and older adults with compromised immune systems are at higher risk for a severe RSV infection. In fact, RSV is one of the leading causes of death from respiratory illness in patients 65 and older. 

Since RSV can be passed through both airborne and surface contact, its ease of spread is not surprising. Early symptoms of RSV include cough, runny rose, and a decrease in appetite.1

RSV and the “Immunity Gap”

In a typical year, viruses like RSV and the flu are uncommon in the spring and summer, as they thrive in conditions of cooler air and lower humidity.2 But when broad social distancing and mask restrictions related to COVID-19 were lifted last year, an outbreak was seen in summer months, with a repeat of this phenomenon in 2022. In October, there were more RSV cases each week of the month than any single week in the two years prior. The spike has caused school closures in several states in recent weeks, along with causing children’s hospitals across the country to reach capacity.

Why the anomalies in decades-long patterns? Many experts point to what can be described as an “immunity gap” caused by widespread lockdowns during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.3 Our bodies develop immunity to pathogens via exposure, and with restrictions lessening social interaction, many young children were exposed to RSV for the first time over the spring and summer months.

Sensitive and Specific: The Advantages of Molecular Testing

Testing for viruses such as RSV may be accomplished via in-lab culturing of samples or molecular PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) testing. Many patients are now familiar with PCR testing due to the prevalence of its use during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though testing through microbiology culture has long been used for pathogen identification, molecular testing offers several distinct advantages over traditional culturing methods:

  • Provides high sensitivity and detects pathogens cultures may miss
  • Reduction of false negatives
  • Detection of polymicrobial infections 
  • Detects viruses with only a small amount of virus present
  • 24-hour turnaround of tests results, while cultures can take up to 14 days

Diax Labs offers highly utilized Respiratory Pathogen Panel (RPP) testing that detects 53 respiratory pathogens, including RSV.  Diax labs can detect RSV and differentiate from other viruses that cause similar symptoms accurately.

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1. “RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus).” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28 Oct. 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/rsv/index.html.

2. Foster, Hannah. “The Reason for the Season: Why Flu Strikes in Winter.” Science in the News, 4 Dec. 2016, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2014/the-reason-for-the-season-why-flu-strikes-in-winter/.

3. Christensen, Jen. “Pandemic 'Immunity Gap' Is Probably behind Surge in RSV Cases, Scientists Say.” CNN, Cable News Network, 28 Oct. 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2022/10/26/health/rsv-immunity-gap.