An Ounce of Prevention
August is National Immunization Awareness Month. Vaccinations are one of the best ways we have to prevent many diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), several diseases have been virtually wiped out in the United States thanks to immunizations – polio, smallpox and diphtheria are among the most notable. Many others have had over a 90 percent decrease in reported cases. These include Hepatitis A, measles, mumps, pertussis, rubella, and tetanus.
Yet, many people don’t get the vaccinations they need to stay well. According to the CDC:
- During the 2015-2016 flu season, 310,000 people were hospitalized with flu-related illnesses.
- Another 900,000 people get pneumococcal pneumonia each year, leading to as many as 400,000 hospitalizations. About 5-7 percent of those hospitalized ending up dying from the disease.
- As many as 2.2 million people live with chronic Hepatitis B, which can cause complications such as liver cancer.
All told, an estimated 45,000 adults die every year from diseases that vaccines can prevent. Many seniors may feel they no longer need vaccinations or they may worry about side effects. But the truth is that people age 65 and older are at greater risk for getting many of the diseases that immunizations help prevent because the older we get, the weaker our immune systems become. The CDC recommends that people over the age of 65 get vaccinated to help protect against the following conditions:
We’re all familiar with the annual flu shot. It’s the single best way to prevent the flu. Vaccination is particularly important for those over the age of 65, as they are at greater risk for complications. According to the CDC, up to 85 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths and 70 percent of seasonal flu-related hospitalizations are for people 65 and older. And while the flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective, it generally cuts your risk by 40 to 60 percent. To improve your odds, ask your doctor about getting one of the vaccines designed to offer greater protection, such as the Fluzone High-Dose vaccine. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the high-dose vaccine was 24.2 percent more effective in preventing the flu for this age group. Flublok Quadrivalent also showed greater protection for seniors. Another study published in NEJM found that people age 50 and older who received the Flublok vaccine were 30 percent less likely to get the flu than those who received the standard vaccine. Ask your doctor if one of the high-dose vaccines is right for you.
Pneumococcal disease may manifest as pneumonia, bacteremia (blood infection) or meningitis, among other ailments, with pneumonia being the most common. Pneumococcal disease kills about 18,000 adults aged 65 and older each year. For this age group, two separate vaccines are recommended. You should get one dose of the PCV13 vaccine and then schedule another appointment to get the PCV23 vaccine. They should not be taken together. Your doctor can tell you when to get your PCV23 shot.
Shingles is an extremely painful, burning rash that can have long-lasting, debilitating effects. People age 50 and older are advised to get the new vaccine, Shingrix. While Shingrix may not completely prevent shingles, it appears to be more effective than its predecessor, Zostavax and the CDC recommends Shingrix because it offers stronger, longer-lasting protection. Shingrix is a two-dose vaccine and tends to have stronger side effects than Zostravax, although they usually disappear in 2-3 days.
You should continue to get a tetanus/diphtheria (Td) vaccine every ten years. Ask your doctor if he or she recommends getting vaccinated for pertussis (whooping cough) as well. The pertussis vaccination may be recommended if you will come into contact with infants who are too young to be vaccinated against the disease or people with a compromised immune system. The good news, either way it comes in a single shot (Td or Tdap).
Other vaccines that may be recommended for you
Depending on your current health status and risk factors, your doctor may recommend getting vaccinated for Hepatitis A and B and/or meningococcal meningitis. As with any medical procedure, always check with your physician before getting a vaccination. In addition to getting vaccinations on a regular basis, you should talk to your doctor about other ways to prevent disease, including eating well, an exercise program and other ways to boost the immune system.