Needles, Shots and the Older Adult: Do they need Vaccines?

By: Kandace L. West, Pharm.D.

Needles, needles, needles . . . who can honestly say that they like to get a shot- anyone?  Most people are creeped out by the thought of needles, shots and blood! But, scheduled vaccinations are an important part of healthcare, especially for kids, and more importantly as we age for the Older Adult. The question I most often get as a Medication Care Pharmacist who specializes in geriatrics is: “why do I need to get shots? didn’t I get all of mine when I was a kid?” This question provides an excellent opportunity to explain the importance of vaccinations on an individual and a global healthcare level.

The first point is that immunizations are needed in our society because if administered to everyone, some diseases can become rare if not extinct. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the greatest example of this is polio or diphtheria. For someone born today in the U.S., it is very rare to contract or develop these diseases.[1] This is because the U.S. has employed a strong effort to vaccinate against these diseases very early on and for those of us born here in the U.S. we often times have unknowingly experienced the luxury of vaccinations as an infant or during our childhood. However, there are many people in other parts of the world, who are less fortunate.

On a side note, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helps to address the unfortunate odds for people born in other countries that cannot afford to provide vaccinations for their citizens. The Foundation is committed to eradicating a number of vaccine preventable diseases. For example, the Foundation has reduced the number of polio cases by more than 99%, saving 10 million children worldwide from polio’s lifelong debilitating paralysis.[2] The humanitarian effort produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is tremendous because they are reducing the number of people affected by vaccine preventable disease and will in the near future eradicate this and other diseases from infecting and harming people worldwide.

So, the next point is that although vaccines are routinely administered to children, there are a number of vaccine preventable illnesses in Older Adults. Getting recommended vaccines for Older Adults reduces complications and death from many vaccine preventable diseases. According to the CDC there are the 4 recommended vaccines for the Older Adult[3]:

(1)    Annual Influenza (Flu) vaccine: The flu is a very common illness that is usually seasonal (October-March). Every year the vaccine is tailored to protect against the most common strains of Flu anticipated to infect people worldwide. For this reason, it is important to get the Flu vaccine annually because it only provides coverage for that Flu season, becoming obsolete thereafter. Flu shots can be administered conveniently at community pharmacies without an appointment, and no longer requires a physician’s prescription.

(2)    Shingles Vaccine: Anyone who has had chicken pox as a child can get shingles as an adult due to reactivation of the virus that lies dormant in the body and many times, unfortunately it tends to be more serious in the older adult. This is because of the reduction in the body’s immune function that naturally occurs as we age. Shingles affects more than 1 million Americans who are 60 years and older, and often times 20% of the Older Adults who get shingles are left with long-term debilitating pain even after the rash heals and is resolved.

(3)    Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Tdap) Vaccine: Each one causes a different disease. Tetanus is a serious bacterial infection that is painful and affects the muscles and nerves. Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that causes sore throat and swollen glands. Pertussis causes whopping cough that can be spread to infants and kids who are not immunized. This 1 shot reduces the risk of getting any of these 3 harmful infectious diseases and prevents its spread to others.

(4)    Pneumococcal Vaccine: This shot protects against bacterial infections in the lungs, blood, and brain. It can also prevent complications from the disease, including death, especially for many Older Adults who are more at risk.

There are some rare individual instances where vaccinations may not be given to an individual due to serious allergies, or previously experienced rare but serious side effects. But, for the majority of people in our population, it is not an issue and these vaccinations are pivotal in preventing and spreading disease. I hope that this emphasizes the importance of vaccinations not only for individuals here in the U.S., but for humanity worldwide and for our most vulnerable populations: children and the – equally important and often overlooked – Older Adult population.

[1] (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 21)

[2] (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, 2013)

[3] (The Centers for Disease Control, 2011)