Vaccinations Aren't Just for Kids

FRIDAY Sept. 16, 2011 -- Public health experts often focus immunization awareness efforts toward protecting children, and with good reason: Facing a potentially bewildering schedule of vaccinations for their young ones, parents usually need all the help they can get.

But vaccinations aren't just kid stuff.

Medical science is creating an increasing number of immunizations targeted at adults, to help them avoid life-threatening diseases in middle-age and opportunistic infections when they're older.

"Immunization is a life-long issue that we need to pay a lot of attention to," said Dr. Georges C. Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.

Some adult vaccinations are very well-known, like the annual shot that aims to prevent the spread of influenza.

"You need an influenza shot every year," Benjamin said. "Part of that is because the virus changes every year, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot."

The flu vaccine is the least challenging of adult vaccines to promote because just about everyone can and should get one, with very few exceptions, said Dr. Carolyn B. Bridges, associate director for adult immunizations at the Immunization Services Division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"People don't have to go through a process to figure out if they are indicated or not for the vaccine," said Bridges, noting that, as of last year, everyone 6 years and older is recommended to receive an annual flu shot.

Newer vaccines, however, are targeted toward specific age groups, which can make it more difficult to figure out which shots are needed.

For example, the relatively new human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents infection by a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer in women.

"The vaccine is recommended for younger girls, but young adults who didn't receive it as preteens or teens can get it," Bridges said. It's still being debated whether boys and young men also should receive the vaccine, to keep them from spreading HPV to vulnerable women.

An increasing number of vaccines either target senior citizens specifically or are highly recommended for them. That's because these immunizations give the immune system an extra boost when most needed, Benjamin and Bridges said.

"As we age, our ability to fight off disease wanes," Benjamin said. "Vaccines can help offset the waning of your body's normal immune responses."

One example is the herpes zoster vaccination, which is recommended for everyone 60 or older, according to the CDC. The herpes zoster shot prevents the occurrence of shingles, a painful skin disorder linked to childhood infection with chicken pox, Bridges said.

Other vaccinations recommended for seniors include:

  • A pneumococcal vaccination at age 65, if you've never had the shot before. "We try to tag that to when you become Medicare eligible," Benjamin said.
  • A second dose of the measles/mumps/rubella vaccination. "We encourage people to get a second dose of MMR at the age of 50 and older," he said.
  • A tetanus/diphtheria booster every 10 years after age 65.
  • The influenza vaccine, every year. "Flu is still a major problem in terms of mortality for seniors," Benjamin said.

People at increased risk for certain diseases, either because of work, illness or lifestyle, also might require vaccination as an adult.

For instance, those planning to travel abroad should talk with their family physician about shots they might need to provide additional protection against infectious disease. "If you're going to travel to other places where you might have some risk for some diseases, you might need to get a travel vaccine," Benjamin said.

Health-care workers also need to receive a wide variety of vaccinations, including hepatitis A and B shots, tetanus/diphtheria and measles/mumps/rubella, according to the CDC.

However, pregnant women are not recommended to get most vaccinations, Benjamin said. A notable exception, though, is the influenza vaccine, which pregnant women are encouraged to get, Bridges said.

"There are now numerous studies that have shown that influenza vaccine provides protection in an infant's first six months of life," she said. "The mother transfers antibody to the unborn child so when they are born they have some protection against influenza."

Yet despite health-care workers' efforts, some adults remain reluctant to get vaccinated because of various health concerns. A common one is that, by getting the flu shot, they will actually contract the flu.

Bridges said that public health officials need to help people overcome such fears so that they will protect themselves against deadly but easily avoidable illnesses.

"These vaccines are all licensed because they've been deemed safe and effective," she said. "The risk of adverse events is much lower than the risk of severe illness."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on adult vaccinations.

In a related article, a former public health official talks about fear as vaccination motivation.

Targeted Diseases

-- Diseases that can be prevented through vaccination, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include:

  • Anthrax: The vaccine is given to anyone who may be exposed to anthrax, but it is not yet available for the general public.
  • Cervical cancer: The HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine is used to prevent the most common types of HPV that cause cervical cancer.
  • Chicken pox
  • Diphtheria: Several combination vaccines -- DTaP, Tdap, DT and Td -- prevent diphtheria.
  • Genital warts: Protection comes from the HPV vaccine.
  • Hepatitis: Vaccines exist for both hepatitis A and hepatitis B.
  • Influenza
  • Measles
  • Meningitis: Prevention comes from the Hib vaccine (Haemophilus influenzae type b).
  • Mumps
  • Pneumonia: The Hib vaccine prevents pneumonia.
  • Polio
  • Rabies: Exposure to rabies would still require medical attention, but vaccination before exposure may reduce the needed treatment and minimize the person's reaction to the treatment.
  • Shingles
  • Smallpox
  • Tetanus: Several vaccines prevent tetanus, including DTaP, Tdap, DT and Td.
  • Tuberculosis
  • Typhoid
  • Whooping cough
  • Yellow fever

Posted: September 2011


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