We all get sick, and at the height of the sickness, we’ve all wished we could do something— anything—to feel whole again. Whether it’s something as simple as the sniffles or painful and uncomfortable like the chickenpox, we’ll do anything to get back to normal. And yet for many older Americans, 15 minutes of time and a simple needle prick are too high a price to pay for a near-guarantee that we’ll never have to experience these awful ailments in the first place.
Vaccination has been around in one form or another for a thousand years, but modern technology and medical science has allowed for immunization to be practiced across the globe and against more than 25 diseases. These vaccines save millions of lives a year and many life-threatening illnesses have been eradicated because of widespread herd immunity. And while much of the focus around vaccinations revolves around infants and children, there has been a recent push to evangelize elder adults with the gospel of preventable diseases such as influenza, pneumococcal, tetanus and others.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), vaccines are especially important for adults over 65. As we get older, our immune system weakens, and complications from serious diseases can result in hospitalization or even death. In fact, despite making up only 15 percent of the population, elder adults account for over 50 percent of vaccine-preventable deaths each year. Unfortunately, the reason is clear: only about half of seniors get the vaccines recommended for them. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s State Surgeon General, has even declared a public health emergency regarding the prevalence of hepatitis A.
“As we grow older, the immune system does not work as well due to fewer immune cells in the body that bring about healing, which ultimately increases the risk of illness,” said a CVS Pharmacy spokesperson. “Because of this, it is important for seniors to protect themselves with vaccines to decrease the risks from an aging immune system.”
The specific vaccines recommended for senior citizens include influenza, which is generally given in the fall by the end of October; pneumococcal, which becomes much more dangerous after age 50; herpes zoster, also known as the shingles or chickenpox; tetanus; hepatitis A and B; and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). According to the HHS, Medicare Part B covers vaccines that protect against the flu, pneumococcal disease and the hepatitis B vaccine, if you’re at increased risk for hepatitis B. It also covers vaccines that you might need after an injury (like the tetanus vaccine) or encountering a disease (like the rabies vaccine). Medicare Part D plans generally cover more vaccines than Part B, but depending on your Medicare Part D plan, you may have out-ofpocket costs for these vaccines.
There are many reasons senior adults may be hesitant to receive the vaccinations they should—chief among them is that the vaccination causes the disease it is designed to prevent. While this is a myth, some vaccines, like the flu shot, are not 100 percent effective at preventing it altogether, though they do reduce the chances and the severity. Another reason is costly co-payments of $100 or more for vaccinations not covered by Medicare Part B. Yet another challenge is that many doctors’ offices do not store some vaccines. The patient is asked to come back at another time, and they rarely do. Finally, many senior adults are simply not aware that they need updated and new vaccinations; many assume the ones they received as a child are adequate.
“While no vaccine is 100 percent effective, it is the best way to protect yourself from illness,” said a CVS Pharmacy spokesperson. “For the annual flu vaccine, the CDC monitors strains from past years and conducts studies to determine how well the flu shot protects against the flu year-over-year. When the flu vaccine viruses match the circulating flu viruses well, the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent. The new shingles vaccine, Shingrix, is more than 90 percent effective, and with almost half of the cases of shingles are seen in adults 60 and older, it’s important for older adults to get the vaccine. As for pneumococcal vaccines, there are two options and both are more than 60 percent effective in most cases. Older adults should receive this vaccine as they are more likely to develop severe complications from pneumonia that can lead to death.”
This misinformation and lack of resources cause almost 90,000 preventable deaths a year. Whatever the reason for those 89,999 tragic cases, ask yourself, what is the reason I have not gotten vaccinated? If the reason is laziness, lack of education or another surmountable challenge, Council on Aging of West Florida encourages you to overcome that hesitation and do it. Your life may very well depend on it. If a lack of resources prevents you from receiving immunization, contact your local Florida Department of Health in Escambia County (595-6500) or in Santa Rosa County (983-5200). There may be programs available to you.
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