Some adults believe vaccines they received as children offer lifelong protection. Most of the time this is true, but there are exceptions. Some adults were never vaccinated as children and others only received a few because not all immunizations were available at the time. While immunity will last for many years, it can begin to fade over time.
As we age, we become more susceptible to serious diseases caused by common infections such as the flu or pneumonia. This susceptibility also can mean we become more prone to complications. Each year, more than 65,000 American adults die from vaccine-preventable diseases or complications. And pneumonia and flu (grouped together) are the fifth-leading cause of death among older adults. That's why Medicare Part B pays for influenza and pneumococcal shots.
Influenza is expected to kill thousands of people in the United States again this year. The flu vaccine is especially recommended for people 50 and older, residents of long-term care facilities, people with weakened immune systems, healthcare workers or those with certain high-risk medical conditions. But it is available for everyone who wants to reduce their chance of catching the flu and its complications.
Parents are encouraged to get their children immunized this year. Children also are at risk for complications and death and they often stand a better chance of contracting the disease because of their close contact with children at school.
Flu causes fever, cough, sore throat, headache, chills and muscle aches. Most people who get the flu recover fully within 1-2 weeks. Some people, however, develop serious, life-threatening complications such as pneumonia. In an average season, influenza kills an estimated 36,000 Americans and puts 200,000 in the hospital. In the United States, flu season usually occurs from October through April. Healthcare providers recommend that residents get the vaccine in October or November because the season usually peaks between January and March. No matter when you get it, please remember, it takes approximately two weeks for your body to build up immunity after receiving the vaccine. So, if you should get the flu in that two-week time frame, understand that it wasn't from the shot. You were exposed to the flu and your body simply couldn't fight off the infection because it hadn't had enough time to build up immunity.
Most people only need one flu shot a year. Children under 9 who are receiving their flu shot for the first time should receive two shots one month apart. Regardless of your age, it is necessary to get a flu shot every year. Influenza viruses are known to mutate often and this necessitates that flu vaccine be updated yearly to cover these changes.
Pneumococcal disease is another example of a very serious disease that can be prevented through adult immunizations. Pneumonia can cause many complications and result in death. In fact, this disease kills more people in the United States each year than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined
Pneumonia has become more resistant to treatments with drugs such as penicillin. This has made treatment of pneumococcal infections more difficult and prevention of the disease through vaccination even more important. About one out of every 20 people who get pneumococcal pneumonia dies from it. It is recommended that the following people get immunized against pneumococcal pneumonia:
• All adults 65 years of age or older
• Anyone older than 2 years of age who has a long-term health problem.
• Anyone older than 2 years of age who has a disease or condition that lowers the body's resistance to infection.
• Anyone older than 2 years of age who is taking any drug or treatment that lowers the body's resistance to infection.
• Alaskan natives and certain Native American populations.
The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria and usually requires only one dose for immunity. Second booster doses are required under certain circumstances and for some people who have specific health conditions. Boosters generally are given every six years in those cases.
Other vaccines available for adults include chickenpox, measles-mumps-rubella, tetanus-diphtheria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, shingles and special travel vaccines. These vaccines are now recorded on new Adult Immunization Record Cards created through the Immunization Action Coalition. Most adults have not had the Hepatitis B series or since this is a relatively new requirement for children in the state of Georgia.
While not a requirement for adults, hepatitis B is recommended for many people because of their life style, work, nationality, or country of origin. Recipients of certain blood products, inmates in long-term correctional facilities, international travelers, and clients or staff of developmentally disabled institutions are more at risk of contacting hepatitis B and should be vaccinated.
Five to six percent of Americans are infected with hepatitis B and more that 6,000 Americans die yearly from hepatitis B-related liver disease while another 1,500 die of liver cancer related to hepatitis B. Hepatitis B infection can result in serious consequences. And while many of those with the disease are able to fight off the virus, about 10 percent remain chronically infected and become carriers.
The hepatitis B vaccine has received loud acclaim since it is the first anti-cancer vaccine as well as being the first vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease. In infants, the first dose of the three-dose series of shots is generally administered shortly after birth. Older adolescents and at-risk adults can start the series at any time.
Another new vaccine, Zostavax, is now available for people 60 years old and older to prevent shingles. This is a one-time vaccination to prevent new or reoccurrences of the disease. It does not treat shingles or post-herpetic neuralgia (pain after the rash is gone) once it develops. People who have had shingles also can receive the shingles vaccine to help prevent future occurrences of the disease.
Local health departments will start administering flu and pneumonia vaccines around the middle of October. For additional information about adult vaccines or to schedule your appointment, contact your health department or healthcare provider.