Vaccines – What You Need to Know Now

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By Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF
Founder and CEO, Ms.Medicine

While you might think it’s best to avoid a trip to the doctor’s office these days, vaccines for common illnesses remain an important component of your family’s wellness strategy, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) constantly updates its recommendations based on solid medical research on immunizations and public health. It recommends that all adults – not just those with compromised health conditions or certain risk factors (and adolescents – will link to the adolescent vaccine blog when completed) – should receive some vaccines. Staying healthy is more important than ever now: illness can compromise your immune system making you more susceptible to contracting coronavirus (or other illnesses), and those who become critically ill take away from other healthcare resources that are in great demand due to Covid-19.

Here are the key vaccines you need to discuss with your doctor—even during the COVID-19 pandemic—to make sure you and your family stay healthy.

Flu Vaccine (Influenza):  Number one on the list for anyone aged six months or older is the flu vaccine. It is simply the best way to prevent contracting the common contagious virus that can be deadly. The very young, the elderly and those considered at high risk should be especially vigilant about receiving a flu vaccine every autumn. (Only those who’ve had a reaction to the vaccine in the past, are allergic to eggs, or have had Guillain-Barre syndrome should not be immunized.) This season, the flu vaccine is even more important – research shows that it is possible to contract both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, putting one at even greater risk for serious infection. (link to “Should I get a Flu Shot? Blog) Flu season typically runs from October – March, so getting your flu shot in late September to mid- October is best (at least before Halloween). It won’t provide 100% protection, but in most years, it can reduce risk of contracting the flu by 40 – 60%, and those who do still get sick tend to have much milder symptoms.

Pneumonia:  There are now two types of pneumonia vaccines, and adults need both of them. The one routinely given to infants and toddlers, Prevnar, is now also approved for adults 50 and up. Another one, Pneumovax, protects against 23 strains of the bacteria. In order to be fully protected, adults should receive both vaccines. And sometimes it makes sense for an additional dose of both vaccines later in life to prevent this respiratory disease that’s contracted by more than one million people each year.

Shingrix (for Shingles): Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a painful, blistering rash that develops as the result of the reactivation of the varicella zoster virus, the virus that causes chickenpox. No one knows what triggers the reactivation, but getting older plays a part, as aging can weaken our immune system. Even once the rash has resolved, many people experience nerve pain that can last for weeks or even months. Shingles can develop decades after the initial chickenpox infection and is most common in adults over 50. The CDC estimates that nearly one million people annually will develop shingles, and 1 in 3 people in the US will develop it in their lifetime.

The Shingrix vaccine, introduced a few years ago, shows much improved efficacy over the older zoster live (Zostavax) vaccine – an average of 91% – and longer lasting efficacy, meaning even older age groups maintained that 91% efficacy rate. Because data from its trials demonstrated consistent efficacy across the entire population, it is indicated for adults 50 and older. Adults require two doses of the vaccine, two to six months after the initial shot.

Hepatitis A: Hepatitis A is a viral infection of the liver. It can cause mild or serious symptoms and illness including fever, nausea, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and jaundice. People can become sick with hepatitis A by eating contaminated food or water – including food prepared by someone with hepatitis A who did not practice proper hand hygiene – or direct contact with an infected person. For the most part, individuals infected with the hepatitis A virus recover from illness without any lasting damage to their health. However, it can cause serious liver disease – including liver failure.

The best way to reduce your risk of hepatitis A – and protect yourself and your family from the rise in outbreaks – is with a vaccine. The vaccine is often required for travel out of the country, particularly to regions that have high rates of the virus. Vaccines are given over two doses, scheduled six months apart.

Talk with your doctor about your personal risk of contracting an illness and if you should make an appointment to update your vaccines. Remember that disease prevention is far better than dealing with the pain, compromised health, potential contamination of others and cost of treatment after the sickness sets in.

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