October 29, 2018 by
Illustration by Derek Joy

Vaccines are not only for children. That’s one of many confusions about vaccinations, says Dr. Mark Rupp, a professor and chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“Certain vaccinations are very important for adults as they age in order to maintain their health,” he explains, “and especially important for those with chronic health conditions.”

Rupp says the most essential vaccines for seniors are for shingles, influenza, pneumococcal disease, and tetanus/Tdap.

Other common misconceptions concern the vaccines themselves. “People believe that if they get the influenza vaccine, for example, it will give them the flu,” he says. “But since it is made from a killed virus, not a live virus, there’s no way it can transfer the infection to you.” 

Meanwhile, misinformation has circulated in recent years about vaccinations causing certain illnesses or conditions, especially in children. “We may not fully understand what causes those conditions, but we do know there is absolutely no link between them and vaccines,” he says. 

A fraudulent study by British doctor Andrew Wakefield inaccurately linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to childhood autism in a now-retracted and discredited 1998 scientific paper. Unfortunately, the damage lingers still among conspiracy theorists. A movement of anti-science skeptics known as anti-vaxxers has led to increasing outbreaks of measles. 

“Vaccines aren’t perfect,” Rupp admits. “But they are our best weapon to protect us from horrible diseases.” As an example, he cites how vaccines for smallpox and polio have basically turned these devastating, life-threatening diseases into “medical curiosities” that are rarely seen today. “Viruses still remain in the world,” he adds, “and if we let our guard down, our children will experience these diseases just like our grandparents did.” 

Rupp believes we all need to be vaccinated because, “It’s the right thing to do…It’s called herd immunity,” he says, “where we form a protective bubble around those individuals who are immune-suppressed, for example, and cannot be given live-virus vaccines.” 

“All vaccines recommended for adults are carefully evaluated, and the benefit of getting them clearly outweighs the small risk of side effects or toxicity,” he says. The website of the Center for Disease Control also states that the current U.S. vaccine supply is the safest in history.

For those with chronic health conditions or high-risk factors, Rupp recommends talking with a doctor about additional or earlier vaccinations, and also to investigate which vaccines are covered by Medicare or other insurance providers. 


Recommended Vaccinations

Shingles

  • Recommended age: 50
  • Approved last year, the new vaccine Shingrix is a two-part injection given one to six months apart. 
  • Benefits over previous shingles vaccine:
    More effective in preventing shingles and complications from shingles (90-95 percent success rate compared with 50-60 percent); longer lasting immunity (four to five years); and doesn’t contain a live virus, so can be given to immune-suppressed patients.
  • Possible side effects include pain at injection site and low-grade fever. 

Influenza 

  • Recommended age: 6 months through adulthood, repeated yearly to keep up with changes in virus. 
  • New feature: no longer made from hen eggs, the vaccine is safe for individuals with egg allergies. 
  • Possible side effects include soreness at injection site, aches/pains, and low-grade fever. 

Pneumococcal 

  • Recommended age: 65 for healthy adults, younger for adults with diabetes, heart disease, asthma, or other chronic illness.

Tetanus/Tdap 

  • Recommended age: childhood through adulthood, with boosters every 10 years. 
  • One of those tetanus boosters should be the Tdap vaccine, which also protects against diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). 
  • The Tdap booster shot is especially important for grandparents, as whooping cough is very contagious and can be deadly for infants. 

This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of 60Plus in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.