Vaccinations for older adults; sorting fact from fiction

14 years ago

By Deb Jacques
    The only thing worse than being sick is being sick and knowing it might have been prevented. Regardless of one’s opinion on immunizations, the fact remains that vaccines have vastly reduced the toll of infectious diseases. The developed world’s success in extending individual life expectancies – from 47 years in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century to 78 years at the beginning of the 21st century – has allowed people to grow old enough – believe it or not – to need a second round of vaccines.
    As flu season arrives, and everyone sits on edge wondering what new surprises this year’s strains have in store, Eastern Maine HomeCare (EMHC) is raising awareness about vaccinations for older adults and helping to dispel some common myths often associated with immunizations.
    According to Cecile Voisine, clinical manager for EMHC/Visiting Nurses of Aroostook in Caribou and Fort Kent, older bodies’ natural defense systems tend to decrease and vaccines can ward off, or at least weaken the severity of, a few diseases capable of inflicting extreme discomfort or worse among otherwise healthy seniors.
    In particular, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend three vaccines for older Americans: seasonal influenza, pneumonia and shingles. The pathogens that cause these diseases can be deadly when manifested in older people, and the vaccines are clearly beneficial.
    Pneumococcus, a bacterium that colonizes in the upper respiratory tract, can cause not only pneumonia, but also deadly blood infections, meningitis and earaches. It kills more people in the United States than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. Seniors are most at risk for these conditions. Death rates among elderly patients with pneumococcal bacteremia run between 30 and 40 percent. The CDC strongly encourages anyone over 65 to get a one-time shot, which should be good for the rest of their life.
    Shingles, a rash cause by the varicella zoster virus, is a cruel cousin of the chicken pox. About one-third of all adults will get shingles at some point, and 10 to 18 percent of those who get shingles will develop a severe pain syndrome caused by nerve inflammation. It can last for weeks or months after the rash has cleared up, and no effective treatment exists for the syndrome. Though there is a vaccine for shingles, less than 2 percent of those who should get immunized do so.
    For flu, authorities recommend annual vaccinations for everyone over 50 years old. The CDC estimates that of the 36,000 Americans who die annually from infection by the seasonal flu virus, 90 percent are age 65 and older. In addition, most of the estimated 225,000 people hospitalized because of the seasonal flu are also over the age of 65. Some studies show the vaccine being as much as 70 to 90 percent effective for healthy seniors.
    In regard to the H1N1 flu, the CDCP advisory committee has noted that people age 65 and older are in fact not a high priority for the vaccine being developed to ward off the virus, however they are not dissuading this age group from receiving the vaccine. Evidence has shown that people age 65 or older are at less risk of catching the H1N1 flu, than are younger people. However, those that do choose to receive the H1N1 vaccine should also plan to receive the seasonal flu vaccine.
    There are many common misconceptions about flu vaccinations, oftentimes deterring people from obtaining a vaccine that could protect them. Whether in a community housing environment or one’s own home, it remains equally important for those over age 50 to receive vaccinations to help prevent illness.
    It is not possible to get influenza from the flu shot. The vaccine is made from a killed virus which is not capable of causing the disease. If considering the nasal spray vaccine, understand that it is a live but weakened virus and is not recommended for adults over 50.
    Oftentimes people don’t get vaccinated because they don’t believe the flu shot works. It is true that the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective in preventing flu and it is possible for some people to still get influenza after taking the flu shot. However, these people usually get a milder case of the flu than they otherwise would get. The risk of hospitalization and death from complications of influenza is also greatly reduced. People also oftentimes use the term “flu” when in fact they are suffering from a cold, respiratory infection, or similar condition. The flu vaccine only protects against influenza, not any other illness.
    For more information, please visit www.easternmainehomecare.org and click on Vaccinations.
    Deb Jacques is the community relations manager for Eastern Maine HomeCare. She can be reached at 532.9261 or via e-mail her at djacques@emh.org.