The first Americans over age 60 just started rolling up their sleeves to get vaccinated against respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, now that brand-new vaccines have started to arrive at pharmacies and clinics.

Millions more older adults may do the same in coming weeks and months, a new University of Michigan poll suggests, as they seek protection against a virus that is especially good at infecting older lungs.

But nearly half of older adults do not know about the new RSV vaccines that received approval earlier this year, the poll finds. And some groups of older adults show much less interest in getting the RSV vaccine than others.

In all, 52% of people between the ages of 60 and 80 had heard the new vaccine option was coming, according to the new data from the National Poll on Healthy Aging gathered in July.

Asked how interested they are in getting vaccinated, 21% of those who answered said they’re very interested, and another 43% said they’re somewhat interested.

The virus poses the most danger to older adults who have lung, heart, kidney, or immune system conditions, or diabetes, and those who live in nursing homes or other group settings. But only 41% of older adults who say their health is fair or poor had heard of the RSV vaccine, compared with 53% of those who rated their health as good to excellent.

On the other hand, over 65% of those with a chronic health condition said they were very or somewhat interested in getting the vaccine, whether or not they had heard of it before being polled.

Risk from RSV infection rises with age, and so did interest in getting vaccinated against it. In all, 70% of people in their 70s said they were very or somewhat interested in getting vaccinated, compared with 60% of those in their 60s.

“As we prepare for the first RSV season when a vaccine will be available for older adults, these early data suggest a need for public health officials, primary care providers, pharmacies, and others to target their outreach and awareness-building efforts,” says Preeti Malani, MD, senior advisor to the poll who has training in geriatrics as well as infectious disease and is a physician at Michigan Medicine, University of Michigan academic medical center, in a release.

She adds in the release, “We found an association between awareness and interest, with 68% of those who had heard of the vaccine saying they were very interested or somewhat interested in getting vaccinated, compared with 60% who hadn’t heard of the vaccine until asked by the poll team.”

The poll is based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine.

More About RSV

RSV infections of the lungs and airways send as many as 160,000 older adults to the hospital each year, and kill as many as 10,000 of them, at a cost of more than $1.3 billion a year.

That’s why the two new vaccines received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration this spring after tests showed they reduce the risk of serious illness such as pneumonia. It’s also why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially recommended them for people over 60, in consultation with a health care provider. A University of Michigan team’s economic model helped inform the recommendation.

The CDC’s recommendation means that Medicare, Medicaid, and most private health insurance plans will cover the entire cost of the vaccines for people over 60.

Malani notes that older adults who are regularly around children should be aware that RSV is commonly transmitted at daycares, schools, and in the home. Infected children often have mild disease or no symptoms, though infants and preschool-aged children have a higher risk of serious illness and hospitalization than school-aged children. A shot to prevent RSV for infants and young toddlers also recently received FDA approval and CDC recommendation.

More poll findings:

  • Gender: More women (57%) than men (46%) had heard of the RSV vaccine, but there was no significant gender difference in interest in being vaccinated.
  • Education and income:
    • 56% of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher had heard of the vaccine, compared with 46% of those with some college or less. Meanwhile, 55% of those with annual household incomes over $60,000 had heard of the vaccine, versus 47% of those with incomes below that threshold.
    • Those with a college degree (68%) and those in higher-income households (66%) were more likely to say they are somewhat interested or very interested in getting an RSV vaccine than those with fewer years of education (58%) or in lower-income households (60%)
  • Race/ethnicity: There were no significant observed differences in vaccine awareness among those of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. But differences emerged when it came to interest in vaccination: 65% of White, non-Hispanic respondents said they were somewhat interested or very interested, compared with 56% of Black and 56% of Hispanic respondents.

The new data come from a poll administered July 17 through Aug 7 to 1,850 people aged 60 to 80 who answered the question about awareness of the RSV vaccine;1,817 of them also answered the question about interest in receiving it. 

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