Assessing the strength of evidence for a causal effect of respiratory syncytial virus lower respiratory tract infections on subsequent wheezing illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis

Steven M. Brunwasser, Brittney M. Snyder, Amanda J. Driscoll, Deshayne B. Fell, David A. Savitz, Daniel R. Feikin, Becky Skidmore, Niranjan Bhat, Louis J. Bont, William D. Dupont, Pingsheng Wu, Tebeb Gebretsadik, Patrick G. Holt, Heather J. Zar, Justin R. Ortiz, Tina V. Hartert

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Background: Although a positive association has been established, it is unclear whether lower respiratory tract infections (LRTIs) with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cause chronic wheezing illnesses. If RSV-LRTI were causal, we would expect RSV-LRTI prevention to reduce the incidence of chronic wheezing illnesses in addition to reducing acute disease. We aimed to evaluate the strength of evidence for a causal effect of RSV-LRTI on subsequent chronic wheezing illness to inform public health expectations for RSV vaccines. Methods: We did a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies evaluating the association between RSV-LRTI and subsequent wheezing illness (exposure studies) and studies evaluating the association between RSV immunoprophylaxis and subsequent wheezing illness (immunoprophylaxis studies). Exposure studies were included if the exposure group members had an LRTI with laboratory-confirmed RSV and if the exposure ascertainment period began before 2 years of age and ended before 5 years of age. We required a wash-out period of more than 30 days between the index RSV-LRTI and the outcome measurement to allow for resolution of the acute illness. Comparisons between RSV-LRTI and non-RSV-LRTI were not included. Immunoprophylaxis studies were included if they measured the association with subsequent wheezing illness relative to a control group, either in a randomised controlled trial (RCT) or an observational design. For the immunoprophylaxis drugs in question, we required evidence of efficacy in targeting RSV-LRTI from at least one RCT to ensure biological plausibility. All variations of wheezing illness were combined into a single outcome that refers broadly to asthma or any other respiratory illness with wheezing symptoms. Ovid MEDLINE and Embase databases were searched from inception up to Aug 28, 2018. We evaluated whether data from exposure studies could provide evidence against the most viable non-causal theory that RSV-LRTI is a marker of respiratory illness susceptibility rather than a causal factor. Additionally, we tested whether RSV immunoprophylaxis reduces the odds of subsequent wheezing illnesses. We used a random-effects modelling framework and, to accommodate studies providing multiple correlated estimates, robust variance estimation meta-regressions. Meta-regression coefficients (b) quantify differences between exposure and comparator groups on the loge odds ratio (loge OR) scale. Findings: From 14 235 records we identified 57 eligible articles that described 42 studies and provided 153 effect estimates. 35 studies estimated the direct effect of RSV-LRTI on wheezing illnesses (exposure studies) and eight evaluated the effect of RSV immunoprophylaxis (immunoprophylaxis studies). Exposure studies that adjusted for genetic influences yielded a smaller mean adjusted OR estimate (aOR+ 2·45, 95% CI 1·23–4·88) compared with those that did not (4·17, 2·36–7·37), a significant difference (b 0·53, 95% CI 0·04–1·02). Infants who were not protected with RSV immunoprophylaxis tended to have higher odds of subsequent wheezing illness, as we would expect if RSV-LRTI were causal, but the effect was not significant (OR+ 1·21, 95% CI 0·73–1·99). There was generally a high threat of confounding bias in the observational studies. Additionally, in both the observational studies and immunoprophylaxis RCTs, there was high risk of bias due to missing outcome data. Interpretation: Our findings, limited to exposure and immunoprophylaxis studies, do not support basing policy decisions on an assumption that prevention of RSV-LRTI will reduce recurrent chronic wheezing illnesses. Funding: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)795-806
Number of pages12
JournalThe Lancet Respiratory Medicine
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine


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