Disease Prevention Article:

They’re not just for kids: Immunizations revisited

by Pam Cunningham, RN/ARNP
Overlake Hospital Medical Center, Senior Care/Connections Program

Immunizations are not just for children. For many older adults, vaccinations are an important part of staying healthy and living longer.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that adults be immunized for such common illnesses as the flu, pneumococcal pneumonia and hepatitis B. In addition, some adults need vaccinations against measles, mumps, rubella (German measles), tetanus and diphtheria.

The Healthy Aging Partnership - a coalition of 28 not-for-profit and public health and senior service organizations in King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties - offers these tips to help seniors decide which immunizations are most crucial for their good health.

Influenza or "the flu" is a viral illness that causes fever, chills, sore throat, cough, generalized weakness, muscle aches and fatigue. But for people in high-risk categories - older adults, people with compromised immune systems and others with diabetes, heart, lung and kidney disease - contracting influenza can be quite dangerous. It can cause a worsening of chronic heart and lung disease, bacterial or viral pneumonia, hospitalizations and even death.

Because of the epidemic potential of the flu virus, and because of the decreased ability of people with other underlying illnesses to cope with the virus, the CDC recommends that elderly persons and persons with ongoing health problems get a flu shot every year. Being vaccinated against the flu each year can prevent up to 60 percent of the hospitalizations and 80 percent of the deaths caused by influenza-related complications among the elderly.

Influenza season in the United States generally runs between January and March. Washington's flu season usually peaks in February. Flu shots in Washington state are usually available beginning in mid-fall.

Pneumococcal pneumonia is the most common serious pneumonia among Americans over the age of 65. Pneumococcal bacteria can infect the lungs, causing pneumonia; the lining of the brain, causing meningitis; and the blood, resulting in bacterial blood infection

The CDC has long recommended that all Americans over the age of 65 receive pneumococcal immunization. Usually, one dose is all that is needed, however, a second vaccination is recommended for those people aged 65 and older who got their first dose when they were under 65, if five or more years have passed since that dose.

Tetanus and diphtheria are acute infectious diseases. Adults need tetanus and diphtheria booster shots every 10 years or following an injury which occurred more than five years after their last booster.

Travel vaccines are those shots that are necessary when traveling to a foreign country where certain diseases - now virtually eradicated in the United States - are common.

Polio, rubella, measles, tetanus, diphtheria and hepatitis A and B vaccines are sometimes recommended for people going abroad. Specific travel immunization information can be obtained from Public Health-Seattle King County at 206-296-9816.

For more information on immunizations or on any other issue related to living a healthy life as an older adult, call 1-844-348-KING (1-844-348-5464), HAP's toll-free information and assistance line, or visit the Web site at www.4elders.org. HAP and 1-844-348-KING are generously supported by HAP partner agencies, Puget Sound Energy and the Comprehensive Health Education Foundation.