North Dakota Health and Human Services (HHS) is encouraging all North Dakotans to choose to be immunized against respiratory infections to prevent serious illness.
These infections, which include influenza, respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus (RSV), and COVID-19, can follow a seasonal pattern with more cases in late fall and winter. During the 2022-2023 season, these viruses placed a heavy burden on families and health care systems.
People with certain chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, children under five, American Indians, and persons 65 and older are at higher risk of serious illness from respiratory infections. Immunizations may not prevent all infections but work well to reduce severe illness. Everyone should talk with a trusted health care provider and make a plan to be immunized this fall.
For the first time, there are now immunizations to protect against RSV for those 60 years and older, and for infants. The vaccines for older adults at higher risk are available now, and the preventive antibody for infants is expected to become available sometime in October. Late last week, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended a RSV vaccine for pregnant women to protect their infants against RSV during the first months of life. If mothers are vaccinated, then infants do not need to receive the preventive antibody for RSV protection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), RSV leads to over 14,000 deaths annually among adults 65 years and older, as well as 58,000 hospitalizations in children five and younger. These immunizations can offer protection against severe disease from a virus that puts millions at risk every year. American Indian children are 4-10 times more likely than the general population to be hospitalized from RSV before age two.
The RSV immunization for infants is a preventive antibody that provides short-term protection against RSV and hospitalization for about one RSV season. Parents and others who care for infants should know that RSV preventive antibody is recommended for all infants under eight months of age born during or entering their first RSV season, which is typically October through March. It is also recommended for children at increased risk of severe RSV who are entering their second RSV season, including severely immunocompromised children and American Indian children.
“I am so excited that after years of development and large clinical trials, we finally have a way to prevent RSV in our youngest and oldest North Dakotans,” said Molly Howell, HHS Immunization Director. “RSV is a scary illness, especially for new parents, so access to immunizations to prevent hospitalizations and severe disease is reassuring.”
Adults 60 years and older, pregnant women and parents of infants should discuss RSV immunization with their trusted health care provider.
During the 2022-2023 flu season, North Dakota had over 11,000 reported cases of influenza, and 482 influenza and pneumonia-related deaths. Last flu season, 174 children in the United States died due to influenza, most unimmunized.
The “flu vaccine” is recommended for all North Dakotans six months and older. In North Dakota, influenza immunization rates for the most at-risk age groups during the 2022-2023 season were only 37% for children six months through four years, and 56.6% for adults 65 and older. The influenza vaccine can reduce the likelihood of having to go to the doctor by 40 – 60%.
Influenza activity can increase quickly and it can take up to two weeks to have the full benefit from the vaccine. For those reasons, the best time to protect from severe flu is now through the end of October.
While COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths remain low in comparison to 2021 and 2022, new variants continue to develop, and hospitalizations related to COVID-19 are slowly trending upward nationwide. Updated 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccines are starting to be available in the state and supplies are expected to increase in the coming weeks. These vaccines were updated to better match circulating variants. Everyone six months and older is recommended to have received at least one updated 2023-2024 COVID-19 vaccine dose. Additional doses may be recommended for children under 5 years and individuals who are immunocompromised. Being up to date on COVID-19 vaccines continues to prevent severe outcomes from the illness, especially in those at higher risk.
“North Dakotans have many options to help prevent respiratory illnesses this fall and winter, and more importantly, their complications. Immunization is the best way to stay healthy and active in the months ahead. HHS recommends individuals receive age-appropriate immunizations to prevent severe illness that could lead to missed work and school days, doctor appointments, hospitalizations and increased health care costs,” said Howell.
Recommended immunizations are generally covered by insurance. In addition, there are programs in place to prevent cost from being a barrier to immunizations. These include the Vaccines for Children program, which provides free vaccines to children who are American Indian, Medicaid-eligible, or uninsured or underinsured. HHS also has programs to provide free influenza and COVID-19 vaccines to uninsured adults.
"In addition to immunization, there are other actions people can take to protect themselves and others against respiratory disease this fall," says Levi Schlosser, an epidemiologist with HHS. " These include frequent and proper hand hygiene, wiping down high-touch or frequently used surfaces, and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Individuals should stay home from work or school if they are feeling ill."
North Dakotans are encouraged to visit vaccines.gov or contact their health care provider, local public health or pharmacist for information about respiratory immunization availability in their area. All available respiratory immunizations can be administered at the same visit if preferred.
For more information, contact the HHS Immunization Unit at (701) 328-3386 or (800) 472-2180. Information about influenza and COVID-19 can be found at hhs.nd.gov/health.