Immunization has been shown to prevent between two and three million deaths each year and though the vaccine focus has been on children, World Immunization week reminds us that seniors can also be at high risk as well.
For each communicable or “catchable” disease, certain populations are at a greater risk than others. People with compromised immune systems, infants or young children, pregnant women are often included in the “high risk” category – but in many cases, so are seniors. Even if an older person received a vaccine in childhood or in younger years, he or she may still be vulnerable and some diseases are seasonal or have only recently become a preventable problem.
For example, in the U.S. – together Pneumonia and Influenza are the sixth leading cause of death and 90 percent of those who succumb are senior adults. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that seniors be vaccinated for a number of preventable diseases.
The “flu” is a seasonal illness which peaks during the late fall to winter months. It can be particularly harsh in the elderly and may cause thousands of deaths each year, with 90 percent of deaths occurring in those over 65. Symptoms in the elderly may be slightly different from those in younger people but it is highly contagious, especially in a residential or institutional environment and yearly vaccinations are recommended for adults over 65.
Streptococcus pneumonia or Pneumococcus bacteria can cause a type of pneumonia which is a leading cause of hospitalization in the elderly and may also cause thousands of deaths each year. A vaccine against pneumococcus was not introduced until 1977 and has since been improved. People over the age of 65 are recommended to have the newest PCV 13 vaccine even if they had a prior pneumococcal immunization but in most cases the vaccine does not need to be repeated.
Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes Chicken Pox. Most seniors had chicken pox as children and the virus may go into “hiding” after the child recovers, only to emerge years later as shingles. Shingles is usually not life-threatening but can be extremely painful and debilitating. It may cause a line or patch of painful blisters and the area may remain painful long after the blisters have gone. A Shingles or “Zoster” vaccine is now available and recommended for those over 60 even if the patient has already had shingles.
Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis
For many years, Tetanus and Diphtheria shots have been recommended to be given every 10 years. While many seniors may be “up to date” on their Td booster, some may not have had the TDaP vaccine. The “P” in TDaP stands for Pertussis, also known as whooping cough. Children receive a different form of the vaccine but TDaP is now recommended for all adults who have not been vaccinated against Pertussis to prevent whooping cough outbreaks. Pertussis is most dangerous in infants but it can cause illness in the elderly as well with symptoms of coughing and vomiting that may be severe enough to result in rib fracture. In addition, a Pertussis infection can last for more than two months and may increase the risk of the development of pneumonia. A TDaP vaccine can be given at any time, no matter when the last Tetanus and Diphtheria vaccine was and is usually only needed once.
Other vaccines may be recommended in the elderly as well, depending on the vaccine status and individual patient needs. Check in with your seniors’ primary doctor to ensure they are up to date with all of their shots!