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Canadian pharmacists have an important role this RSV season

Mobilizing this country’s pharmacists is essential to help protect vulnerable patients from syncytial virus (RSV) this season.

As Canada continues to cope with the RSV season this winter, it is important to recognize that the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can lead to serious health problems. Especially for infants and seniors. While many patients experience milder symptoms that resemble a common cold, there is a widespread lack of awareness surrounding the severity of RSV complications. 

For one, RSV infections can lead to respiratory failure and hospitalization. Some patients experiencing serious complications may even require ventilators and a stay in an intensive care unit. Globally, over 3 million patients become hospitalized and 100,000 die each year

One of the key challenges with managing RSV infections is that there are limited options to fight the virus once a patient becomes infected. Unlike bacterial infections where antibiotics are effective in addressing the bacterial source, most adult patients with RSV rely solely on oxygen and fluids. This is why preventative measures are so important.

For this reason, the recent development of RSV vaccines has been a major scientific breakthrough. The opportunity to prevent patient harm from RSV infection cannot be understated and for the first time in history, patients can finally receive reliable protection from the virus. 

Read: Ontario pharmacists, RPhTs granted new immunization, treatment authorities

According to the Government of Canada, the Arexvy vaccine is currently available for patients over the age of 60. In 2024, the Abrysvo vaccine, which is already available in the United States, is expected to come to Canada and will also protect infants through the vaccination of pregnant women. 

In most jurisdictions in Canada, pharmacists are authorized to administer the vaccine to eligible patients. In Alberta, pharmacists are also allowed to prescribe the vaccine to patients. Recently, Ontario has now joined the rest of the provinces in Canada where pharmacists are empowered to perform these services. 

A key lesson from vaccination campaigns during the COVID-19 pandemic was the importance of leveraging pharmacists within the community. In this respect, throughout the pandemic, pharmacists have also demonstrated their competency and effectiveness as vaccinators. With pharmacists having administered approximately 17 million doses of the vaccine in Canada, the scale and reach provided by pharmacists are essential to the successful administration of vaccines en masse. 

The success of RSV vaccination efforts is especially important for vulnerable patients who are at a higher risk of RSV complications such as patients who have other health conditions like heart or lung disease. There is a concern that these patients are more susceptible to hospitalization and complications. These concerns are especially magnified in places such as British Columbia where there has been a noted increase of RSV. In the United States, it has even been reported that infections have begun to strain hospital services

Read: Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy Professionals releases details about expanded scope of practice

Earlier this month, the Ontario Government passed its proposed amendments for expansions of scope for pharmacists to administer RSV vaccines. Another welcome initiative has been its high-risk older adult RSV vaccine program, where patients over 60 years of age in long-term care homes qualify for a free vaccine, removing cost as a barrier. The Government of Ontario is clearly committed to protecting vulnerable patients from RSV. 

However, in terms of getting broad coverage of RSV vaccines for patients who need them, we still have further to go in providing patients affordable access. But with these vaccines finally available for patients and an array of healthcare professionals empowered to give them, Canada must mobilize its pharmacists to best protect vulnerable patients from RSV. 

Peter Zhang, PharmD, MBA is a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy.

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