RSV Vaccine For Transplant Patients: What You Need To Know

RSV vaccines for transplant patients can be powerful in the prevention of serious complications. Learn about the benefits and considerations here.

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Written by Nazar Hembara, PhD

Published 26 May 2024

Respiratory Syncytial Virus, mostly referred to as RSV, is a common respiratory virus. While the majority of sufferers experience mild and cold-like symptoms, RSV can also lead to serious respiratory illnesses in several vulnerable population groups, including transplant patients.

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The reason why transplant patients are at a higher risk of RSV complications is that the immune system is often suppressed to prevent organ rejection. This suppression increases the risk of infections such as RSV becoming severe or even life-threatening.

Vaccination is an important strategy in managing health post-transplant. It serves as a preventive measure to protect against severe RSV infections, which can compromise transplant outcomes and overall patient well-being.

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What are RSV vaccines?

RSV vaccines are immunizations that protect people against the virus. It is estimated that RSV affects over 64 million people worldwide every year, causing 160,000 deaths, which makes vaccinating the most vulnerable groups of people highly important.

Like many vaccines, the RSV vaccines help the body develop immunity by introducing a form of the virus. This stimulates the immune system and causes it to release a response, without causing illness in the body.

How RSV vaccines work

There are two approved RSV vaccines in the US. Both typically contain inactivated or attenuated forms of RSV or proteins from the virus. When small amounts of the virus are given to patients in the form of a vaccine, the immune system is prompted to recognize and fight off the virus.

As part of the immune system response against RSV, protective proteins known as antibodies are produced. These help to prevent infection by neutralizing the virus if the person is exposed to it in the future.

Types of RSV vaccines

Currently, there are several types of RSV vaccines under development around the world. Each vaccine candidate or existing vaccine aims to stimulate the immune system, effectively fighting off the virus and reducing the risk of a severe RSV infection.

Some vaccines are already available for specific groups of people, while others are still undergoing more medical research and clinical trials. These include:

  • Live-attenuated vaccines - using a weakened form of the virus that can still replicate it without causing it, these vaccines are generally undergoing more research. They are not yet widely available and for transplant patients, live vaccines are advised against.
  • Subunit vaccines - this type of vaccine is commonly used in the FDA-approved RSV vaccines in the US. It includes a small part of the virus, such as the RSV fusion (F) protein, which induces an immune response without causing the illness.
  • mRNA vaccines - using messenger RNA cells to instruct cells to produce a protein that triggers an immune response, mRNA vaccines are widely under development. This type is similar to some COVID-19 vaccines but is not yet widely available as part of an RSV vaccine.

Currently available RSV vaccines

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved two RSV vaccines in 2023, both designed to prevent RSV infections in adults.


A vaccine by GSK, Arexvy was the world’s first RSV vaccine for older adults and was approved by the FDA in May 2023. It is available for individuals over 60 and is suitable for transplant patients, but guidance from a healthcare professional should be sought before the vaccine is received.

The safety and effectiveness of Arexvy were confirmed through extensive clinical research. During clinical trials, Arexvy was proven to significantly reduce the risk of developing severe RSV-associated lower respiratory tract disease.


Created by Pfizer, Abrysvo was also approved for over 60s by the FDA in May 2023. This vaccine works in a similar way to Arexvy, teaching the immune system to develop a response by using a protein from the RSV virus.

A clinical trial including 34,000 people over the age of 60 concluded that Abrysvo showed substantial efficacy in reducing the incidence of severe respiratory diseases associated with RSV in this age bracket. Pfizer is now also seeking approval for the use of this vaccine for 18-59 year olds following the success of clinical trials in this age group.

Why are RSV vaccines recommended for transplant patients?

With an increased vulnerability to severe respiratory infections, RSV vaccines are highly recommended for transplant patients. RSV vaccines can prepare an already compromised immune system by helping it recognize and combat the virus effectively. With the RSV vaccine, the risk of severe infection is reduced and progression to a serious lower respiratory tract disease such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis is prevented.

Prevention of RSV is key in transplant patients, not just because they are a higher risk, but because treatment options are also more limited. Once infected, transplant patients could encounter more severe complications than other population groups.

By receiving an RSV vaccine, the risk of complications, severe symptoms, and even hospitalization in transplant patients is significantly reduced. This also helps to improve overall health outcomes and ensure a higher quality of life after transplant.

Are RSV vaccines safe for transplant patients?

Both RSV vaccines approved in the USA are generally considered safe for use by patients who have undergone an organ transplant. However, the specific safety profile and recommendations can vary depending on the patient's health status and the type of transplant received. This is why conversations with your healthcare provider about your unique health status and RSV vaccines are essential.

Studies to evaluate the immune response and safety of RSV vaccines specifically in transplant patients are currently underway. These include those who have received renal and lung transplants.

These studies are vital in fully understanding how transplant patients respond to the vaccine in terms of safety and effectiveness. With already compromised immune systems due to medication regimens, understanding RSV vaccine efficacy in transplant recipients is a high priority for medical researchers.

Potential side effects of RSV vaccines

Like most vaccines and medications or treatments, RSV vaccines can also cause side effects. The most commonly reported side effects among the general population of those receiving the RSV vaccine include:

  • Soreness at the injection site
  • Fatigue
  • Fever

Most of these symptoms are reported as mild and are thought to resolve themselves quickly.

For transplant patients, vigilance is heightened about any vaccine due to the potential for implications with current medications and altered immune response. This means it’s not always clear what side effects could be experienced by transplant patients.

Medical researchers have placed importance on monitoring any rare but serious side effects of the RSV vaccine that could impact transplant patients differently. For example, an immune reaction that could affect the transplanted organ.

Considerations for transplant patients

With unique medical needs and sometimes uncertain health status, there are several considerations transplant patients need to think about when deciding whether to have an RSV vaccine.

Firstly, the timing of the vaccination in relation to the transplant surgery is vital. Most healthcare experts recommend vaccines be given at least a few weeks before the transplant surgery where possible. If this is not possible, the vaccine should be administered during a stable period in the post-transplant phase. This is because the patient’s immune response is more likely to generate effective immunity from the vaccine during these time periods.

Another key consideration is the type of organ transplanted as this can influence the person’s vaccination strategy. For example, a lung transplant patient could be at a higher risk of respiratory viruses, so they may require more immediate or aggressive vaccination schedules than someone who has had a kidney transplant.

Kidney transplant patients

Like most organ transplants, immunosuppressive drugs are required to prevent organ rejection. However, this can also influence the effectiveness and safety of the RSV vaccine, potentially reducing the immune system’s response to the vaccine.

It could be essential to make adjustments to the timing or dosage of immunosuppressive therapy when planning for RSV vaccination. Kidney transplant patients should be monitored closely for adverse effects after they have been vaccinated, especially since their immune systems could respond differently and increase the chance of more severe side effects.

Liver transplant patients

While all organs are important, the liver plays a particularly crucial role in medication and vaccine processing. When deciding whether to have the RSV vaccine, liver transplant patients and their healthcare professionals should carefully consider how the new liver might process the vaccine. Thought should be given to the potential for liver enzyme fluctuations which could indicate stress on the liver.

Although it’s rare, there is a theoretical risk that a vaccine could trigger an immune response that impacts liver health, meaning close monitoring post-vaccination is required.

Lung transplant patients

With RSV having a direct impact on the respiratory system, lung transplant patients should be monitored closely following RSV vaccine administration. Healthcare professionals will want to look out for any signs of respiratory distress or exacerbation of any existing conditions, either related or unrelated to the lung transplant.

Those who have received a lung transplant should also stay clear of live vaccines as there is a chance they can cause an active infection in a highly susceptible patient. At present, there is no live vaccine version of the RSV vaccination, but if there were, it would be contraindicated in lung transplant patients.

Heart transplant patients

Vaccines have the potential to cause transient increases in heart rate or inflammation, which means heart transplant patients should be closely monitored for cardiovascular symptoms that could occur after receiving an RSV vaccination.

The response of the immune system in heart transplant patients can be unpredictable due to complex post-transplant medication regimens. This may also require closer monitoring and more frequent follow-ups with a healthcare professional to ensure adequate protection against the virus and potential complications.

How effective are RSV vaccines for transplant patients?

For transplant patients, it can be difficult to establish the efficacy of RSV vaccines due to the immunosuppressive therapy required to prevent organ rejection. This therapy determines how well a person’s immune system will respond to the vaccine, which can also make having a robust immune response more complex.

At present, there is not a great deal of specific data on the efficacy of RSV vaccines in transplant patients. This is because they are commonly excluded from initial vaccine trials because of their compromised immune status and higher risk for complications.

However, despite potential limitations in immune response, the protective benefits of RSV vaccinations for transplant patients are likely to outweigh the risks. Even a small amount of protection can reduce the severity of an RSV infection. This can be crucial in avoiding complications that could impact both the patient’s overall health and the health and success of the transplanted organ.

Clinical trials and research on RSV vaccines for transplant patients

Since RSV vaccines were first approved for use, medical researchers have recognized the heightened risks that RSV poses to transplant patients. As such, there is a growing focus on developing and testing RSV vaccines that meet the complex needs of this vulnerable population group.

Participating as a transplant patient in clinical trials for RSV vaccines

Vaccine clinical trials are vital for the success of medical research and the establishment of more successful treatments for patients. For transplant patients, participating in an RSV vaccine trial could potentially offer access to new therapies and interventions that could impact their health and quality of life. Additionally, they would also be contributing to the advancement of medical science in the development of RSV vaccines for the wider population by participating in these studies.


RSV can be potentially debilitating for many at-risk populations, including transplant patients. It’s therefore clear why scientists are placing an emphasis on RSV vaccination and understanding its effect on transplant patients.

While RSV vaccinations are already available to help at-risk groups avoid serious side effects and complications, caution is still advised for those who have undergone an organ transplant due to the limited research undertaken in this group.

Understanding how RSV vaccinations impact transplant patients is vital for moving medical research forward and establishing the safety and efficacy of RSV vaccines. With more data available, researchers can better understand how transplant patients’ bodies react to the RSV vaccine, supporting them to create or adapt vaccines to offer a better outcome for all transplant patients.


Can transplant recipients get the RSV vaccine?

Transplant patients can generally receive an RSV vaccine, but it really depends on the type of transplant they had and the specific circumstances of the individual. In most cases, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that transplant patients should receive an RSV vaccine as a high-risk for severe complications group.

However, transplant patients should always discuss this with their healthcare provider before getting the vaccine. This is because they may need to make changes to their medication schedule or establish when the right time to have their vaccine might be.

Is the RSV vaccine safe for CKD patients?

There may be concerns about the safety of receiving an RSV vaccine for patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD). There is limited research specifically related to CKD patients and the RSV vaccine, but general studies have shown that the vaccine is safe for people with weakened immune systems. The benefits of the vaccine also generally outweigh the risks for most groups.

Like all vaccines and potential medical treatments, CKD patients should discuss the RSV vaccine and their unique needs with their healthcare provider to establish whether the vaccine is appropriate.

What vaccines should transplant patients avoid?

Transplant patients should avoid some vaccines due to increased risk, including live attenuated vaccines such as the MMR vaccine, and the chicken pox vaccine. This is because these vaccines contain weakened forms of the virus which have the potential to cause serious illness in transplant patients.

With an increased vulnerability to infections due to a weakened immune system, transplant patients should carefully consider their vaccine schedule and ensure they receive proper vaccinations. Discussions with a healthcare provider are essential when deciding whether to get vaccinated.

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