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Helping healthcare systems breathe easier

Respiratory syncytial virus – also known as RSV – may not be a widely known disease, yet its impact is significant. It can lead to serious chest infections and causes over 100 000 deaths among young children and results in more than 3 million children being hospitalised each year. As a result, RSV places a considerable health and financial strain on already-stretched healthcare systems. Now, an IMI project RESCEU is quantifying this burden to improve how the disease is managed, treated - and hopefully prevented - in the future.

16 June 2022
A baby is lying sleeping on its left side on a bed. The baby is cuddling a beige teddy bear.
The researchers estimate that in 2019, there were 33 million RSV-associated acute lower respiratory infections in children under 5. Image by Mallmo via Shutterstock.

Some diseases are lodged in the public consciousness - often at odds with their true impact – while others remain relatively unknown. It’s probably fair to say that RSV - respiratory syncytial virus – falls into the latter category. This is despite the fact that almost everyone will have had contracted RSV at some point in their life; most children will have had at least one infection before their second birthday.

However, despite its seeming ubiquity, RSV poses a serious risk. Transmitted through contaminated air droplets, it is highly contagious and is the most common cause of respiratory hospitalisation in infants. Almost 3.4 million children under the age of 5 are hospitalised each year as a result of RSV. Indeed, it is a major cause of death among the young. The elderly and those with weakened immune systems are also at particular risk of severe problems. Currently, there are no specific treatments and no effective vaccine against RSV; nor does previous exposure provide immunity against reinfection.

In addition – given the scale of RSV infection - RSV also has a significant impact on the wellbeing of healthcare systems. This makes it important to understand more about the disease in order to identify prevention measures to restrict its spread, a task the IMI-funded RESCEU project has been pursuing since 2017. It is using modern data analysis techniques on existing and novel data to understand the scale of RSV infection in Europe and worldwide. Their latest findings, published in the Lancet, reveal that more than 100 000 deaths in children under 5 were attributable to RSV in 2019. The research will provide greater understanding of how RSV spreads and how and where it impacts healthcare systems. In turn, this should help to identify the best public health approaches to use in order to direct often limited resources to where they can deliver the greatest impact.

The RESCEU team has already used their data analyses to model how RSV transmission varies from month to month, as well as the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of different approaches to immunising infants. With at least one immunisation product likely to become available within the next two years, RESCEU has provided EU countries with the data needed to ensure national immunisation strategies are as effective as possible.

The researchers at RESCEU are also establishing a store of biological samples from patients who have suffered severe RSV – a so-called ‘biobank’. This will allow researchers to search for biological markers of the disease that will help predict how RSV progresses in individuals. With work to develop effective vaccines for RSV already well advanced, the outputs of RESCEU should help make any future immunisation programme more effective from the outset. The RESCEU project is scheduled to be completed in September 2022. However, a new IMI project – PROMISE – is building upon the groundwork laid by RESCEU; this will pave the way for the introduction of new products into RSV immunisation programmes.

RESCEU and PROMISE are supported by the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a partnership between the European Union and the European pharmaceutical industry.