Few medical interventions have saved more lives than has vaccination, one of our most important disease prevention tools. Vaccines not only protect the people who receive them, but those with whom they come in contact.
Vaccines stimulate the production of antibodies to fight infection. They have eradicated smallpox, once the world’s most devastating killer, and essentially eliminated polio in the U.S. and many other parts of the world.
The development of vaccines dates back to 1796 when Edward Jenner acted on the observation that milkmaids exposed to cowpox rarely were afflicted with severe forms of smallpox. Since then, as the science behind the creation of vaccines has improved dramatically, their use has expanded to cover a variety of infectious diseases.
Vaccines can be divided into two types: those created from dead germs and those containing live germs. The goal is to trick the body into thinking it is infected so it can trigger an immune response that protects against future exposure to the organism. Many people remain concerned about the risks of vaccination, but it has a long track record of safety and effectiveness.
Pediatric vaccination programs have been extremely successful in the U.S., with childhood deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases at an all-time low. But healthy adults also require regular vaccines.
Beginning with the flu shot, here is a summary of common diseases for which adults routinely are vaccinated. It is not comprehensive. For more information about other vaccines for which you may be eligible, please consult your physician.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends the flu vaccine for everyone who is at least 6 months old. The vast majority of the 3,000 to 4,000 flu-related deaths in this country each year occur among people over the age of 65. The vaccine takes about two weeks to become effective and immunity lasts about one year. Yearly vaccination is necessary because different strains of the flu appear every year.
Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR)
This vaccination is usually given in childhood at 12-15 months with a booster at 4-6 years of age. If you don’t know whether you have had this vaccine, talk to your physician about getting it now.
The viruses are highly contagious and can have severe consequences. A rubella infection during pregnancy can lead to serious birth defects. A small percentage of measles cases can develop into encephalitis, leading to seizures, brain damage and death. Mumps can also cause encephalitis, in addition to deafness and swelling of the testicles and ovaries, potentially leading to sterility.
The pneumonia vaccine should be considered for all adults over the age of 65, as well as for younger adults with risk factors such as asthma, COPD, diabetes and immune-compromising illnesses. People on immune-suppressing medications such as chemotherapy should also consider the vaccine. Women should be vaccinated before becoming pregnant.
A vaccine was recently approved and is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control for people over the age of 60. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox, but anyone over 60 should have the vaccine whether or not they have had chicken pox.
The most common symptom is a painful skin rash on one side of the face or body that can last for weeks. The effects typically are more severe the older you are. Shingles can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, blindness or death.
This vaccine prevents diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), different types of bacterial infections that can have serious consequences.
A combination vaccine is typically given at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months and 4-6 years. It is also recommended that adults get a DTaP booster at least once, especially if they are in close contact with infants. The idea is to create a “cocoon” of immunity around infants to prevent transmission.
Diphtheria causes sore throat, fever and a characteristic thick, gray membrane covering the tonsils and throat. About 20 percent of cases result in severe heart infections and 10 percent of cases cause damage to the nervous system.
Infection from tetanus usually occurs following a deep puncture wound. Those infected can develop severe, painful muscle spasms; about 20 percent do not survive. It is recommended that all adults receive boosters for tetanus every 10 years.
Pertussis is characterized by violent coughing spells. In severe cases, it can lead to difficulty breathing, rib fractures, pneumonia and death. Most adults lose their immunity to it even if they were vaccinated as children.
The vaccine is usually received in childhood, but adults who have not had chicken pox or the vaccine may want to discuss vaccination with their physicians.
Again, the vaccine is usually received in childhood, but it is not routinely recommended for adults because they either are already immune or have little exposure risk. Exceptions are made for adults who are exposed to the virus through travel or work.
Kevin Frey, M.D., is an internal medicine physician at OhioHealth Millhon Clinic. Feedback welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.