Reprinted from the January 2017 issue of the South Shore Senior News
By Diana DiGiorgi
Yes. A number of diseases, which can be prevented with vaccines, can cause significant illness, hospitalization, disability, and even death.
Older adults are more affected than most people by these diseases. According to the Alliance for Aging Research, more than half of the annual flu-related hospitalizations, and 90% of the annual flu deaths, are in people age 65 or over. Roughly half of the 1 million annual cases of shingles in the U.S. are in people over the age of 60. Even though seniors are hit harder by these illnesses, vaccination rates among older adults are dangerously low.
Your immune system is made up of cells that defend your body against a bacteria or virus, called a pathogen. It is your immune system which produces antibodies that destroy the pathogens. Every time your immune system reacts to a specific pathogen, it builds up a defense called immunity. The next time that pathogen shows up, your immune system “knows” the bacteria or virus, and removes it more quickly.
Vaccines imitate an infection, and tell your immune system to produce antibodies to protect you from a disease. By getting vaccinated, you also protect those around you who may not be vaccinated. This is called herd or “community immunity.” The more people who get vaccinated, the fewer chances a disease has to spread.
Here are some bacteria or viruses that can be treated with vaccines:
- Influenza (flu) is a respiratory virus that spreads from coughing or sneezing droplets that land on you. Every year as many as 200,000 people are hospitalized from the flu.
- Tetanus is a bacteria that enters the body through a deep flesh wound. It can interfere with the ability to breathe.
- Diphtheria is a bacteria that attaches to the lining of the respiratory system and produces toxins. It can make it hard to breathe and swallow. This can lead to infections of the lung, blood, heart, kidney, and nerves.
- Pertussis can lead to uncontrollable coughing, which often makes it hard to breathe.
- Varicella is the chicken pox virus. Varicella zoster is a chicken pox virus that can be reactivated years later as a shingles infection. During their lifetime, 30% of Americans will develop shingles — around 1 million people each year.
Pneumonia is a bacteria or virus that infects the lungs. Every year, an estimated 53,000 people die and 1.1 million are hospitalized because of pneumonia.
Vaccines you received when you were younger (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) can wear off, so you may need a booster vaccine. If there are vaccines you never received as a child (like chickenpox), it may be recommended that you get them as an adult.
As we age, our immune system weakens and puts us at a higher risk for certain diseases, like shingles and pneumonia. After age 60 there are additional vaccines that are recommended. Vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella are not recommended for those ages 60 and up.
Talk to your doctor about staying up-to-date with your vaccines. The flu vaccine can change each season and even change mid-season. Your immunity decreases over the year and certain diseases and conditions can make it harder to fight off infection. With some chronic diseases, the complications of infection can be more severe. Ask your doctor about your risk for meningitis and hepatitis A and B.
Whenever you get vaccinated, ask for an immunization record card, and have it sent to your doctor’s office. Medicare Part B pays for flu, pneumonia, and hepatitis B vaccines. Medicare Part D plans must include all commercially available vaccines (except those covered by Part B). Medicare Part D or Medicare Advantage Part C plans, that offer prescription drug coverage, may also cover a number of these vaccines. Medicaid covers some of these vaccines.
For more information about what vaccines are recommended for you, visit this website www.cdc.gov/vaccines.
About the Author
Diana DiGiorgi is the Executive Director of Old Colony Elder Services (OCES). Founded in 1974, OCES proudly serves greater Plymouth County and surrounding communities. OCES is a private, non-profit organization headquartered in Brockton with a second office in Plymouth. OCES is designated as one of 26 Aging Services Access Points (ASAPs) in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. OCES’ mission is to support the independence and dignity of elders and people with disabilities by providing essential information and services that promote healthy and safe living. The agency has 245 employees and operates more than 15 programs serving older adults, individuals with disabilities, their families and caregivers. For more information call 508-584-1561 or visit www.ocesma.org.