When we hear the word immunizations, we immediately think of childhood vaccines. These vaccines are what keep our children healthy and prevent epidemics of serious illnesses. Like children, adults also require immunizations. Probably the one with which most people are familiar is the “tetanus shot”. This vaccine is a combination of tetanus and diphtheria. Tetanus is a serious, sometimes fatal, disease of the brain and nervous system caused by bacteria that enter the body through a break in the skin. Diphtheria is a potentially serious bacterial infection involving the respiratory tract. An adult version of the childhood dTP series, Tdap, was introduced in 2005, providing coverage for pertussis (whooping cough) as well. Pertussis is a highly contagious, potentially fatal, bacterial disease of the respiratory system that is increasing in prevalence in the United States. Accordingly, the Tdap vaccine is now recommended as a one- time booster for adults, reverting then to Td for routine boosters every 10 years.
The Varicella, or chicken pox, vaccine, began to be used in the US in 1995. It is recommended that adults who have no credible history of having chicken pox either have immunity verified via a blood test or receive a series of two vaccinations 4-8 weeks apart. This vaccine is particularly important to those exposed to environments where transmission is possible, such as medical workers and non-pregnant women of childbearing age. The virus does not leave the body once it heals after the initial outbreak; it hides in nerve cells and an infection can reoccur later in life in the form of herpes zoster, more commonly known as shingles. It is not the same strain of herpes virus that causes the sexually transmitted disease, but it can be very painful and have long term effects. It can occur in young people, especially the ones with weakened immune systems, such as those with diseases of the immune system, are on chemotherapy, or who take steroids regularly but most commonly affects older people as their immune systems begin to weaken. In 2006, a vaccine for shingles, Zostavax, was approved for adults 50 years of age and older and is recommended for ages 60 and above. A newer vaccine, Shingrix, is now the preferred product for the prevention of shingles, although Zostavax is still available.
The MMR vaccine provides immunity for measles, mumps, and rubella (German Measles). Although the incidence of these diseases has been dramatically reduced since the vaccines became available, some people remain at risk. Adults who were born on or before 1957 and have not had the diseases or those born after that who have not been immunized are at risk for contracting these potentially serious viral illnesses. They should have at least one dose or two for those more at risk such as college students and healthcare workers. As with varicella, a blood test is available to determine immunity if you have had the disease in the past.
A flu shot is advised annually for people of all ages. Of the multiple strains of the influenza virus, only the three (for trivalent), or four (for quadrivalent) that are expected to be the most virulent or prevalent for that year are chosen to be combined into the one injection. Bear in mind that you can still get another strain of the flu even if you have had a shot, but you may not get as ill as you would have without the vaccine, and you should be covered for the strains used to create it.
Other vaccines for adults provide protection against meningitis, pneumonia, hepatitis A and B, and the human papillomavirus. Available since 2006, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, Gardasil, has been recommended for females, and now for males. Strains of this virus are responsible for cancers of the reproductive system, head and neck, and for genital warts.
Some of these vaccinations may be a bit uncomfortable temporarily but remember, the diseases themselves are much, much worse. You can’t protect yourself from all the illnesses in the world, but if you can prevent even some of them, then why not? Vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate.
For more information on communicable diseases and vaccines, go to www.cdc.gov.