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RSV cases continue to rise in East Tennessee, but a vaccine trial hopes to prevent it

RSV, much like the flu, circulates yearly -- but doctors said it's unusual to see so many kids in the hospital for it during the summer.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, is on the rise again across Tennessee and the country. A new vaccine trial in Knoxville hopes it can finally defang what has long been a public health menace to protect medically fragile young children and older adults at risk for serious infections. 

RSV is a common infection that most commonly causes mild cold-like symptoms in children and adults annually. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said nearly every child will have been infected with RSV by their second birthday.

However, for newborns and young infants, especially medically fragile children with other respiratory issues such as asthma, RSV can lead to serious infections such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia that require urgent hospital treatment.

RSV is just as prevalent and in some years is deadlier than the flu across the globe, but it has largely gone under the public's radar. In the mid-2010s, it gained renewed public awareness after several serious cases in infants and young children went viral on social media.

East Tennessee Children's Hospital said this year it and other pediatric hospitals are seeing a significant rise in RSV cases -- from 151 in June to more than 300 in July. 

This comes in an unusual offseason for the virus, which is normally most prevalent in the fall and winter months.

“We're going to have a more serious season this year than normal,” said Dr. Bill Smith, the CEO of the Alliance for Multispecialty Research in Knoxville.

Smith's team has carried out successful vaccine trials for numerous diseases, including COVID-19. His team has now started to work on a vaccine trial for RSV to help put in place an effective way of protecting most people from the most serious infections, much like the flu vaccine.

"Respiratory syncytial virus is a significant public health problem. We need a vaccine," said Dr. Smith.

Dr. Smith said he is wanting to get the word out that RSV is just as serious as any other virus. He said also wants to raise awareness RSV isn't only prevalent to children, but people over 60.

"Part of what we are trying to do is Increase awareness of RSV as a real illness in adults particularly older adults, not just in children and infants," Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Smith said it probably won't be until next year before we see a vaccine for RSV.

Pricilla Dismuke, who suffers from COPD, knows how important these trials are as someone who has benefitted from someone else stepping up as a volunteer in an inhaler study.

"One of the inhalers that they actually use in the study, it actually did help me," she said. "It feels fantastic because that's what we're here for, to help each other." 

Now a participant in this latest vaccine effort, she said she's just doing her part. Doctors hope these trials will lead to an FDA-approved vaccine in the near future.

"They are still racing to get these investigated and the data needed for approval," Smith said.

That vaccine trial is set to begin next week in Knoxville.

AMR Knoxville is looking for volunteers ages 60+ for RSV Vaccine Study. For more information call 1-888-259-1231 or visit www.amrllc.com/open.