Early-life severe respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection has been associated with the onset of childhood wheezing illnesses. However, the relationship between RSV infection during infancy and the development of childhood asthma is unclear. We aimed to assess the association between RSV infection during infancy and childhood asthma.
INSPIRE is a large, population-based, birth cohort of healthy infants with non-low birthweight born at term between June and December, 2012, or between June and December, 2013. Infants were recruited from 11 paediatric practices across middle Tennessee, USA. We ascertained RSV infection status (no infection vs infection) in the first year of life using a combination of passive and active surveillance with viral identification through molecular and serological techniques. Children were then followed up prospectively for the primary outcome of 5-year current asthma, which we analysed in all participants who completed 5-year follow-up. Statistical models, which were done for children with available data, were adjusted for child's sex, race and ethnicity, any breastfeeding, day-care attendance during infancy, exposure to second-hand smoke in utero or during early infancy, and maternal asthma.
Of 1946 eligible children who were enrolled in the study, 1741 (89%) had available data to assess RSV infection status in the first year of life. The proportion of children with RSV infection during infancy was 944 (54%; 95% CI 52–57) of 1741 children. The proportion of children with 5-year current asthma was lower among those without RSV infection during infancy (91 [16%] of 587) than those with RSV infection during infancy (139 [21%] of 670; p=0·016). Not being infected with RSV during infancy was associated with a 26% lower risk of 5-year current asthma than being infected with RSV during infancy (adjusted RR 0·74, 95% CI 0·58–0·94, p=0·014). The estimated proportion of 5-year current asthma cases that could be prevented by avoiding RSV infection during infancy was 15% (95% CI 2·2–26·8).
Among healthy children born at term, not being infected with RSV in the first year of life was associated with a substantially reduced risk of developing childhood asthma. Our findings show an age-dependent association between RSV infection during infancy and childhood asthma. However, to definitively establish causality, the effect of interventions that prevent, delay, or decrease the severity of the initial RSV infection on childhood asthma will need to be studied.
US National Institutes of Health.