BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — As young people prepare to head back to school, required immunizations are typically on the to-do list, but getting potentially lifesaving vaccines should not end when adulthood begins, says a University of Alabama at Birmingham infectious diseases expert.
While some vaccines received as a child protect for life, some immunities can decrease over time, newer vaccines come to market and aging can cause susceptibility to serious disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“There’s no system in place like the one children have to keep adults on schedule with vaccines, so they’re done on a more voluntary basis,” said Paul Goepfert, professor in the UAB School of Medicine. “As such, the immunization rates of adults are always low.”
Factors that help determine vaccines needed as an adult include age, lifestyle, locations of travel, and previous immunizations.
“Trials show immunizations are effective in adults, and the CDC regularly updates vaccine recommendation schedules for this age group,” Goepfert said.
The most notable vaccine for the adult population, Goepfert says, is influenza; an annual influenza vaccine is recommended in those 19 years and older.
“While flu vaccine efficacy is only 50 to 60 percent, if you get infected after you’ve been vaccinated, the severity of the illness is often more mild,” Goepfert said.
He added: “Despite this information, influenza vaccine rates are generally low every year. A notable exception occurs in years when the media highlight influenza death rates, especially among the younger adult population.”
The Tdap vaccine is given once to adults, then a Td booster vaccine is recommended every 10 years, to help protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
“Tetanus is rarer now; but pertussis, better known as whooping cough, causes a nasty cough in adults that lasts four weeks or longer,” Goepfert said. “Antibiotics don’t help it; you just have to survive it when you get it. This is one of the more important adult immunizations that people often forget about.”
The Varicella, HPV, MMR, Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B vaccines are needed for adults who did not get them when they were children.
The Zoster vaccine protects against shingles, and it is for people 60 years of age or older.
“This is for those who’ve had the chicken pox, and this vaccine prevents it from coming back again in the form of shingles,” Goepfert said. “Though it’s not deadly, it causes a lot of pain even after the lesions have resolved. The Zoster vaccine prevents shingles from happening, so now as awareness of this grows, a lot of older individuals are asking for this vaccine by name.”
Goepfert says a patient’s medical doctor can help with guidance on needed vaccines.
“Many of these vaccines, though not 100 percent effective, have been shown to decrease death rates,” Goepfert said. “So if you want to decrease the chance of dying from a vaccine-preventable illness, get vaccinated.”
Goepfert adds that getting vaccinated should also be considered a part of civic duty.
“It’s something to do for your community because not everyone can take vaccines; some have medical reasons or don’t respond,” Goepfert said. “If you get vaccinated, then you get a circle of protection around a person who cannot get vaccinated. So it not only helps protect you, but it also helps others in your community not get the disease.”