By Jennifer Wider, MD
Mention the word vaccination and most people think of babies, toddlers and school-age children. But as the fact is, adults also need to be vaccinated (when and where appropriate) to keep themselves and their children safe. Unfortunately, far too many adults overlook these lifesaving measures.
According to a recent report conducted by the Trust for Americas Health, a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. dedicated to disease prevention and community health, millions of American adults are foregoing recommended vaccinations. According to the report, barely one-third of adults get an annual flu vaccination and only two percent of are vaccinated against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough.
These startling statistics should not be the norm, according to William Schaffner, MD, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt Medical School in Nashville, Tenn. Adults must stay up-to-date on their vaccines for three very important reasons:
1. Personal protection against vaccine-preventable diseases.
2. Protection of family members, so they wont transmit vaccine-preventable disease.
3. Help provide a solidly protected community.
"The more people who are vaccinated the more protected a community will be," says Schaffner. "The frail, older and immunocompromised members of society can survive but are apt to have severe outcomes with certain infections and they cannot respond optimally to vaccines." In other words, the stronger members of a society can help protect the weaker ones.
Vaccines are a community responsibility, so why are so many adults skipping them? Many adults assume that routine vaccinations are only appropriate for infants and children, and falsely assume that unless they are traveling outside the country, they dont need them. In addition, "physicians are not as well-versed on vaccines as they should be," said Schaffner.
In a recent Parenting Magazine article, Lance Rodewald, MD, director of the Immunization Services Division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, "while doctors are advised to review their patients vaccine status at every check-up, this doesnt often happen,".
Physicians are responsible for informing their patients of vaccination timetables and ensuring they are protecting themselves, their loved ones, and the community at large.
Finally, insurance programs, even the federal ones, do not completely cover out-of-pocket costs when it comes to adult vaccinations. "Its not the case for children where 98 percent of childrens vaccines are covered by the National Immunization Program, theres nothing like that when you cross the threshold of your 19th birthday," said Schaffner.
Getting vaccinated as an adult is crucial because immunity fades with time, even if a person received all of the necessary shots as a child. According to Schaffner, there are two important vaccines that adults need to have on their radar screens:
1. Influenza: now recommended for everyone over six months of age. Pregnant women are especially recommended to get the influenza vaccine since it protects themselves and because some of this protection crosses the placenta and offers some defense to the baby for the first six months of life.
2. Whooping cough: in a form with tetanus and diphtheria.
With several recent outbreaks of whooping cough, the CDC recommends that all adults get a one-time booster of Tdap (which contains tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or the bacteria responsible for whooping cough) in addition to a Td booster every 10 years.
"Young babies are the most vulnerable," says Schaffner. "Everyone needs to get vaccinated who will have contact with babies in the home. And it is now recommended that pregnant women who havent been vaccinated with Tdap should be in the second and third trimester to protect themselves and their baby."
The whooping cough booster is important for older children and young adults because the immunity begins to wane during the middle and high school years. "Some states are putting in a requirement that in order to start middle school, you need evidence of a whooping cough booster," says Schaffner. "If everyone in a family is vaccinated, it confers a cocoon of protection, so we dont bring the virus or bacteria home and expose our youngest family members."
Jennifer Wider, MD, is a medical advisor for the Society for Womens Health Research (SWHR), a national non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., widely recognized as a thought leader in research on sex differences and dedicated to improving womens health through advocacy, education, and research.