“Older adults are skipping vaccinations,” reported a recent article in The New York Times. “People once vigilant about vaccinating their children aren’t nearly as protective about themselves as they age, even though diseases like influenza, pneumonia and shingles are particularly dangerous for older people.”
That warning is urgent. Though it’s recommended that adults over 65 get their yearly influenza vaccine as early as October, older adults who haven’t done so should get the shot now, since influenza may still be around in May or June, according to Dr. B.H. Aguilar, at the Wilton office of the Western Connecticut Medical Group.
Dr. Mark Wasserman, medical director of American Family Care (AFC) Urgent Care in Norwalk, agrees that the three most important vaccines for older adults are flu, pneumonia and shingles. Of these, protection against influenza is a must. Each year’s flu shot is carefully researched to make sure that the influenza strains selected for that year are the ones that are most likely to cause influenza. Since there are many different types of influenza, this is a worldwide effort to pinpoint the best protection for each area.
April Rodriguez, RN, who oversees the vaccine services of the Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association, notes that there may be reluctance on the part of older adults who are afraid that a flu or pneumonia shot may make them sick. Rodriguez assures seniors that flu and pneumonia vaccines aren’t live and can’t transmit disease. “There may be mild reactions, such as headache, swelling, or some low-grade joint pain, but they’re temporary,” she explains.
Since it’s difficult for most people to keep track of their vaccinations, they should be kept on file at home, much as passwords are stored, Rodriguez suggests.
“Protection against pneumonia requires two pneumococcal vaccines, given six to 12 months apart,” Rodriguez explains. “Prevnar 13 should be given first and then PPSV23. The first shot contains 13 strains of the pneumonia virus, the other, 23.” It was thought that this was a one-time dosage, but because immunity is so individualized, it’s advisable to have a booster shot every 10 years. This makes any potential pneumonia much less serious.
“Like everything else in medicine, we must compare risk with reward, and today’s vaccines present very few risks,” Aguilar states. “There should be more education for older adults about the importance and safety of vaccines. Far too many people are fearful of the injection, and when they may have any sort of slight reaction a day or two afterward, they feel they’ve gotten the flu or worse from the vaccine. This isn’t true. There’s also worry about the cost, though flu and pneumonia shots are covered by Medicare.”
The shingles vaccine is recommended for everyone over 60. Shingles is a painful rash that usually starts on one side of the face or body. Risk and long-term pain increases with age. It’s caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, and that virus remains in the body, so if you’ve had chickenpox, you’re susceptible, although Aguilar cautions that those who haven’t previously had chickenpox can still contract shingles. The vaccine, which lasts about five years, should be repeated to assure immunity from this often debilitating disease. Unfortunately, the shingles vaccine is expensive, which may deter people from getting it. “It may not always totally prevent the disease but it will decrease its severity,” notes Dr. Alan Radin, a geriatric specialist in Wilton. “The shingles vaccine usually requires private pay, but compared to the cost of treatment and the possible agony of the disease, it’s worth it.”
The Tdap vaccine is also recommended for older adults. It’s a combination of tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and is helpful when the patient has a wound and doesn’t remember when or if he or she has had a recent tetanus shot. It’s not considered a requirement for older adults, but it’s recommended as a booster shot every 10 years, especially if a grandparent is around small children and babies. Since whooping cough can be prevented by the pertussis vaccine, it’s highly recommended, as whooping cough has been making a comeback within the last few years.
Before receiving any vaccinations, check with your healthcare provider.