As summer is winding down and cooler weather approaches, many will soon be hearing that familiar seasonal greeting: “Have you gotten your flu shot yet?”
August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and it is well timed. This annual observance is sponsored by the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC) in conjunction with the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The designation was established to promote raised awareness about the importance of vaccines for preventing serious diseases. Its timing in August reminds people to get an early jump on the winter flu season.
In recent years, various strains of influenza have hit the general population harder than ever. According to CDC estimates, 34 million Americans got the flu during the exceptionally severe 2014-15 season. 710,000 of those cases required hospitalization, and about 56,000 flu victims died. Those are huge numbers.
All adults should get an annual flu vaccination to guard against seasonal influenza. That is especially true for groups considered to be at higher risk, such as young children, adults older than age 65, and anyone with weakened immune systems or certain long-term medical conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, or diabetes.
Even healthy adults ought to be immunized, because it helps them to avoid being a carrier of the disease and passing it on to others. If you spend time around small children during flu season, you surely do not want to put them at risk.
A study by the New York Times earlier this year reported that only about 57 percent of people older than the age of 65 received flu shots last season. In the age 50 to 64 group, the number was even lower at about 41 percent.
Protecting against more than the flu
Part of the communications mission of National Immunization Awareness Month is to inform people that the need for vaccinations does not end in childhood, which is a frequent misconception. Vaccines are needed throughout our lives. For one thing, adults are at risk for other diseases that we were not immunized for as children. Also, immunity from childhood vaccines we received long ago can wear off over the years.
One good example is whooping cough. After decades of decline, instances of whooping cough have been steadily increasing every year since 2003. A widespread outbreak of whooping cough in 2012 involved over 48,000 reported cases, the highest incidence since 1955. Research from the University of Michigan blames “waning immunity” for part of the problem. In other words, the traditional vaccines that worked so well for so long are now losing some of their effectiveness among older people who were given the treatment as children.
Whooping cough is highly contagious and can lead to serious complications, especially among infants. Many medical professionals recommend that adults should get a dose of “Tdap” vaccine (for tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough) if they have not had one, and then receive a booster immunization every ten years.
Senior citizens should take precautions for other health threats beyond the perennial flu bugs and lingering childhood diseases. The CDC encourages adults ages 65 years and older to also get pneumococcal vaccines to guard against infections in the lungs and blood, plus a zoster vaccine for protection from shingles.
Some adults need immunizations for hepatitis, depending on their age, occupation, lifestyle, and travel. People who visit certain countries outside of the United States should also have “nonroutine” vaccinations for protection from exposure to diseases no longer common in America, such as smallpox, yellow fever, and tuberculosis.
Be ready for all of your future health issues
Senior citizens should definitely keep their vaccines up to date, so talk to your doctor about yours.
Immunization is an easy and safe way to help keep you, your family, and your community healthy.
However, even the best medicines will not let you live forever.
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