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Vaccines: Not Just Kid Stuff

Adults need them, too, to thwart dangerous diseases

SUNDAY, Oct. 12, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Most adults figure that, the occasional flu shot aside, vaccinations are strictly kid stuff.

That attitude could cost you -- or even kill you.

Each year in the United States, up to 60,000 adults die from vaccine-preventable diseases or their complications, according to the National Coalition for Adult Immunization, a network of more than 130 organizations including professional associations, advocacy groups, vaccine manufacturers and government health agencies.

"The vast majority of deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases are in adults," says Dr. Ben Schwartz, an epidemiologist with the National Immunization Program of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

To call attention to the need for adults to have themselves vaccinated, the National Coalition for Adult Immunization has declared the week of Oct. 12-18 as National Adult Immunization Awareness Week.

It's easy to forget as you move into adulthood and grow older that you're still susceptible to many of the same infectious diseases that you were protected against as a child, says David Neumann, executive director of the National Partnership for Immunization.

"People get past adolescence and, particularly if they're in good health, they don't see a physician until they're in their 30s or 40s or 50s," Neumann says.

The most common vaccinations are for influenza and pneumococcal infections, Neumann says. Other adult vaccinations can include hepatitis B, measles/mumps/rubella and diptheria/tetanus.

The people who should be most concerned about getting vaccinations are folks over 65 years of age and those who suffer from chronic diseases such as heart or lung problems or diabetes, Schwartz says.

For these people, an inoculation against a virulent disease such as pneumococcal infection can mean the difference between life or death. Pneumococcal disease accounts for an estimated 500,000 cases of pneumonia each year in the United States, as well as 6,000 cases of bloodstream infection and 3,300 cases of meningitis, he says.

But the need for specific vaccinations can vary from person to person, Schwartz points out.

"In hepatitis B, for example, the risk factors include drug use and multiple sex partners -- not a problem for many older adults," Schwartz says.

In general, you should be getting a flu shot once a year after you turn 50, according to the adult immunization schedule published by the CDC. Adults also should get a tetanus/diptheria booster once every 10 years. People in high-risk groups should be getting all other vaccinations on a regular basis, experts recommend.

The best thing to do is consult your doctor about which vaccinations are appropriate for you.

"It's difficult for people to keep track of different recommendations for different vaccines, but doctors are there to sort it all out," Schwartz says.

Another reason to get vaccinations is to keep yourself from spreading a disease among your family and friends. This is particularly true of influenza, which kills an average of 36,000 people in the United States each year.

"Influenza is very easy to transmit," Schwartz says. "People are contagious for about a day prior to suffering any symptoms."

About 20 percent of the American population becomes infected with influenza during a typical flu season, according to the CDC, and 114,000 people will be hospitalized.

You can avoid this by joining the annual march to the nurse's station for a flu shot.

"By getting the flu shots themselves, they're protecting their family and friends and community from getting the disease," Neumann says. "Inoculated people don't spread disease."

This year getting a flu shot will be easier than ever. Stockpiles of influenza vaccine are at a rare high, with some 85.5 million doses on hand. With that much available, the CDC has suspended its usual recommendation that doctors vaccinate only people in high-risk groups before inoculating others.

Vaccines can cause some side effects, and you should discuss those with your doctor. For example, people allergic to eggs are not recommended to get a flu shot because the influenza vaccine is produced from chicken eggs, Neumann says.

Some common side effects of inoculation are a sore arm or low fever. As with any medicine, there are very small risks that serious problems could occur after getting a vaccine. But doctors stress that the potential risks associated with the diseases these vaccines prevent are much greater than the potential risks associated with the vaccines themselves.

More information

For more on adult vaccinations, visit the National Coalition for Adult Immunization or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Ben Schwartz, M.D., epidemiologist, National Immunization Program, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; David Neumann, executive director, National Partnership for Immunization, Alexandria, Va.
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