While the good done by vaccines rarely makes the news, the last year has been a big one in vaccination progress. Rubella, a viral infection that leads to birth defects and miscarriage in pregnant women, was eliminated from the Americas around this time last year with more progress being made worldwide on eliminating it entirely. While fear of ebola was swirling this time last year, significant steps have been made towards a vaccine that will go through trials this year to prevent the infection. Finally, trials have also started this year for dengue and malaria vaccines, two of the world’s deadliest infections. But while you might not be affected by rubella, ebola, or dengue, chances are good you know someone who’s had shingles, pneumonia, or cervical cancer. It’s World Immunization Week and I want to bring you up to speed on how you could be using vaccines to keep you and your loved ones healthy.
Vaccines Have Major Impact on the Health of Kids
Most of our vaccinations happen when we’re children and for good reason. These immunizations provide a baby’s developing immune system with a head start on some of the most common invaders it will struggle to fight off. The impact of these early shots has been incredible in some cases. Haemophilus influenza Type b (Hib), for example, used to cause pneumonia, serious throat infections, and a potentially deadly brain infection in thousands of children across the U.S. Since we started vaccinating kids with the Hib vaccine, cases have dropped more than 99 percent and Hib is no longer an issue many pediatricians deal with. The vaccine against pertussis, also known as whooping cough, caused that potentially deadly illness to almost disappear until recent trends towards avoiding vaccines caused it to crop up again in unvaccinated children.
While you might still hear a lot of debate about the health benefits of vaccines in the media, there’s very little debate within medical and public health communities. Immunizations have saved the lives of millions of people and carry little risk compared to the complications from and treatments for those diseases. They continue to be one of the best methods we’ve developed to prevent childhood illness and death.
Adults Can Reap Big Benefits From Shots
While it’s true that you get most of your shots as a child, vaccines are also important for adults.
The Flu: The flu vaccine is the best method we have of preventing flu infections, reducing the spread of the flu, and of decreasing the severity of symptoms. Even though the flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent protective every year, it still helps save the lives of thousands of people by helping to prevent infection in some of the most vulnerable people in society. If you’re eligible to get the flu vaccine, you should be getting it every year to protect yourself and those you love.
Shingles: Shingles, which is caused by the same virus that leads to chicken pox, can be a big concern in people over age 60. The virus sleeps in your body after the original chicken pox infection and can wake up as your immune system starts to weaken with age. That reawakening can lead to life threatening pneumonia, a rash that can have serious consequences depending on where it happens, and a chronic pain syndrome that can be disabling. Getting the vaccine once you’re over 60 helps double down your protection against the Zoster virus, which that causes shingles, so that it stays asleep.
Pneumonia: Finally, vaccines are available for some of the most common causes of pneumonia. If you’re over 65, you’re at high risk of infection and automatically eligible to get these shots. But you can still be eligible even if you’re under 65 and have certain risk factors:
- Chronic heart disease including congestive heart failure
- Lung disease such as asthma, emphysema, or COPD
- Being an alcoholic
- Having diabetes
- Being a smoker
If you fall into any of those categories, talk to your doctor about whether the pneumonia vaccine could be helpful for you. Getting the shot could save you a trip to the hospital and even save your life.
Cervical Cancer: Human papilloma virus (HPV) is the virus behind the majority of cervical cancer, anal cancer, and penile cancer cases. The vaccine against it has already started to show dramatic benefits amongst men and women who get the vaccine in the form of lower cancer rates and fewer concerning findings on Pap smears amongst women. While the vaccine is targeted more towards children to prevent infection early on, adults up to 26 years old can get the vaccine and potentially save themselves from deadly cancer in the future.
Make Sure You’re Protected
Even if you’re not over 65 and not at risk for pneumonia, it’s still important to ask your doctor about whether you’re up to date with all of your immunizations since immunity for certain childhood shots can decrease over time. The tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine is a one example that requires a booster every 10 years. In addition, there may be some vaccines you missed as a kid that you can still get or might now need because of a new diagnosis. Those with diabetes, for example, should be vaccinated against hepatitis B because they’re at higher risk of serious complications.
Ultimately, who needs which shot at what time can be confusing. Rather than trying to guess what you need, it’s best to go in and have the conversation with your primary care doctor. They can walk you through your risk factors and help you weigh the pros and cons of getting a vaccine at any age. The CDC also has lots of information that can help answer questions you might have about vaccines and whether they’re right for you and your loved ones.