National Immunization Awareness Month: Immunizations Are Not Just For Kids

Aug 22, 2013 | Jane Huston | Research & Policy

The need for immunizations doesn’t end with childhood. Each year, thousands of adults in the United States suffer serious health problems, are hospitalized, or even die from diseases that could be prevented by vaccines, including influenza, whooping cough, certain bacterial infections, hepatitis A and B, shingles, and even some cancers. Immunization rates among adults for many of these vaccine preventable diseases are extremely low. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) that though the shingles vaccine is recommended for all adults over age 60 years, only an estimated 15.8 percent of that population had received it. Meanwhile, less than one-third of females age 19-26 years have received the HPV vaccine which prevents infection with human papilloma virus, the virus that can lead to cervical cancer.

Why are so few adults receiving the immunizations they need to maintain good health? There are many factors. The simplest reason is that many people don’t realize that adults need immunizations, too. While many recognize that a flu vaccine is recommended every year, few adults are aware of the need for other vaccines to help protect their health. In a 2007 survey by the National Foundation on Infectious Diseases, 40 percent of adults questioned said that they did not need immunizations because they were vaccinated as children.

However, protection from some childhood immunizations wears off over time, leaving you vulnerable to disease. For example, there has been a rise in cases of whooping cough in the last few years. Over 41,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in 2012. We have learned that the protection from DTaP whooping cough vaccine given to children doesn’t last into adulthood, so all adults are now recommended to get one booster dose of Tdap whooping cough vaccine.

In addition to misunderstanding of vaccine recommendations, the Trust for America’s Health, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identified four barriers to adult immunization. They include limitations of access to care, gaps in insurance coverage, inability to pay for vaccines if not covered by insurance, and fewer incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in vaccine research and development.

Healthcare professionals are hard at work on addressing these barriers and increasing immunization rates among adults. A study in Pittsburgh found that having a dedicated pharmacist immunizer in a primary health clinic targeting the medically underserved “had a significant impact on increasing adult immunization rates and bringing patients current on vaccinations.”

Elsewhere, a program in a large urban health care system used a computer-based algorithm to quickly and easily determine if a patient needed any vaccinations during their visit by analyzing their age, vaccination registry, health history and risk factors. Combined with a policy that allowed medical assistants to vaccinate patients directly instead of waiting for a provider order, the pilot clinics were able to double the percentage of adults over age 65 years who left the clinic visit as up-to-date on pneumococcal vaccination.

It’s true that adults may be recommended for certain vaccines due to their age, job, hobbies, travel, or health condition. Other vaccines may be recommended if they didn’t get certain vaccines as children, such as the HPV vaccine, Measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, and varicella “chicken pox” vaccines. Some adults, including older adults and those that have chronic health conditions, may be at higher risk for serious complications from some vaccine-preventable diseases.

But those aren’t the only reasons to stay up-to-date on vaccinations. 

Adult immunization is necessary because it not only protects the person receiving the vaccine, but also helps prevent the spread of certain diseases to loved ones and those in the community who are most vulnerable to disease (like those with weakened immune systems and infants).

Vaccines are available at private doctor’s offices, as well as other convenient locations such as pharmacies, workplaces, community health clinics, and health departments.

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