August is National Immunization Month. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests that older adults observe it by asking their doctor if there are any vaccinations or boosters that are needed, especially for influenza, shingles, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, and pneumococcal diseases. Some people have weakened immunity as they age, especially if they have health conditions, so it’s important to give the natural immune system some help.
Despite the significant consternation about vaccinations that is sometimes expressed on various websites and social media, recent testing and statistics still show most vaccinations to be exceptionally safe. As with any other medical treatment or preventive strategy, people need to weigh the pros and cons for themselves to make reasoned and informed decisions. It also requires that they maintain a perspective about the risks to themselves and to those around them.
Diphtheria, which has been virtually eradicated in the United States (the last reported case was in 2003), caused approximately 10,000 to 15,000 deaths per year in the 1920s, mostly among children. In fact, the delivery of diphtheria antitoxin to Nome, Alaska, by 20 mushers and their sled dogs in 1925, is one reason for the running of the famous Iditarod Sled Dog Race, which commemorates the prevention of what could have been a devastating epidemic, as well as other historical contributions of sled dogs.
Diphtheria still exists in other countries, including some of Europe’s developed nations. In a world where airline travel makes us a small world, can we really afford to go unprotected, or risk the lives of others? Older Americans who have not had a booster are thought to be most at risk for the disease in the United States. For an interesting historical perspective, a serious outbreak in 1735 killed 1,200 children in two years’ time in 15 seacoast New Hampshire towns. This is not a disease that needs to make a comeback, and thus far it hasn’t, mostly because of immunization.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, an illness that sometimes kills infants, is currently the only vaccine-preventable illness that is rising in the United States. Antibiotics do reduce the risk for transmission and complications, but must be given soon after exposure, but because pertussis starts with cold-like symptoms, people may not get treatment soon enough. The best protection against this disease, and the possible heartbreak of a family member passing a potentially life-threatening disease to an infant or child, is immunization. (For more information on pertussis, see http://www.soundsofpertussis.com/.)
Older Americans are generally at higher risk for pneumonia and influenza. Approximately 60 percent of adults over age 65 have received the pneumococcal vaccine, and about 65 percent of people age 65 and older get a seasonal flu shot. That leaves quite a few with no protection.
This month may be a great time to have a discussion with your health provider about how well protected you are. If you have concerns about vaccinations, or whether you need boosters, you can ask about titer tests that can measure your immunity before you decide.
Anne Springer is the public relations director of SeniorCare Inc., Cape Ann’s local area agency on aging. To reach SeniorCare, call 978-281-1750.