Hospitals are seeing a major surge in children with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and some doctors think it may be due to “immunity debt” brought on by COVID-19 restrictions.
The most recent RSV hospitalization rate, updated on Oct. 16, is 5.8 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The rate one year prior was 3.5, while the three previous years were all below one.
RSV is particularly dangerous for infants and young children. Several hundred kids under five years old die from the ailment each year, according to the CDC. However, most cases result in only mild illness.
RSV and immunity gap pic.twitter.com/15eY4dFzC6
— Tara Narula M.D. (@drtaranarula) October 26, 2022
Doctors and scientists are frantically scrambling to answer one question: why now? RSV is a seasonal illness that spikes every fall and winter, but hospitals are complaining of unprecedented surges in admittances for the virus on the heels of several seasons of huge COVID-19 waves.
Some have theorized that the RSV surge and COVID-19 may be connected. Certain doctors are proposing that the onslaught is a result of “immunity debt,” the idea that a lack of regular exposure to common bacteria and viruses can result in a weakened immune system that’s more susceptible to infections like RSV.
“Children naturally build immunity to microbes, especially viruses, when they get exposed to them,” Dr. Nkeiruka Orajiaka, an emergency room pediatrician in Ohio, told Verywell Family. “Hence, most kids experienced an immunity debt, or a lack of immune stimulation due to these reduced exposures.”
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, tweeted that some of the spike in RSV can be explained by a lack of interaction between children during the COVID-19 pandemic and the non-pharmaceutical interventions that were used to contain the virus. Those non-pharmaceutical interventions include things like school closures and mask-wearing.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told the Daily Caller that immunity debt is a “plausible” explanation for some of the RSV surge. (RELATED: Team Biden Reportedly Acknowledges Calling All Republicans ‘Anti-Vax’ Wasn’t Good Political Strategy)
“I think that there are multiple factors behind the RSV cases including the fact that people are now socially interacting,” Adalja said. “The immunity gap is a plausible explanation for part of what is occurring as waning immunity coupled to cohorts of children who have never been exposed to RSV would likely allow RSV infections to be more severe in a larger group of children.”
There is some research on the subject to back up this theory as well. One recent research paper published in The Lancet attempted to quantify the immunity debt experienced after COVID-19. It concluded that “out-of-season RSV resurgences are explained by decreased population immunity following a prolonged period of minimal RSV exposure, also referred to as RSV immunity debt.”
Not all doctors agree. Dr. Mark Kline, the chief medical officer at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, called the idea of immunity debt “contrived, misleading and inaccurate.”
But if the surge in RSV hospitalizations is caused, at least in part, by COVID-19 policies, it would be just the latest adverse health effect to result from lockdowns. Research has already shown that children suffered from increased mental health issues and rates of obesity while schools and other facilities were closed.