Children aren’t the only ones who need to be immunized, Sarah Marinos asks the experts about which vaccines adults need to stay healthy.
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So you had all the recommended vaccines during high school. Queuing nervously with classmates while waiting for a needle from the school nurse may not be one of your fondest childhood memories, but those early vaccinations played an important role in keeping you healthy.
Similarly, having the arsenal of recommended vaccinations when you travel overseas offers valuable protection from potentially serious diseases. But vaccinations aren’t restricted to school days and holidays – they’re important for general health, too.
“There is one weak link in the chain of protection and that’s adult immunisation” says Professor Robert Booy, immunisation and infectious diseases expert at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. “While almost everyone has their children immunised these days, we are ignorant and much less organised about adult immunisation. Think about your health in general, think about nutrition and exercise, and think about how you can better protect yourself with vaccines, too.”
Vaccinations in adulthood don’t only protect us individually from the effects of disease, they protect those around us who are vulnerable to infection. This is a situation known as ‘herd immunity!
“Herd immunity is the protection that a group of vaccinated people – like parents and grandparents – give to the vulnerable in their family and the community.” explains Booy. “If you have enough people who are protected themselves, then the vulnerable ones get their protection from the people around them.”
So which vaccinations are important in adulthood?
PERTUSSIS (WHOOPING COUGH)
High-school students get a pertussis booster but only 10 percent of adults have a booster to protect themselves and people around them against pertussis. In 2008,60 percent of recorded cases of pertussis were in adults. It is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract and is particularly dangerous for babies of less than six months of age.
“We’ve had four years of increasing levels of pertussis in Australia and the rate is only
just starting to come down,” says Booy. “We know of 10 babies in the past few years who’ve died and the risk factor is having an unimmunised adult around them.”
WHEN TO HAVE IT: A booster is recommended for couples planning a pregnancy, for women during pregnancy, for new parents as soon as possible after their baby is born, for new grandparents and for people working with babies and young children. “The pertussis vaccine wanes, so think about having a booster every five to 10 years and at key times when you’re going to be around little babies,” says Booy.
“Tetanus is a rare illness but it still exists in Australia. It’s caused by bacteria in soil and leads to a horrific paralysis of the muscles that leads to spasm of the limbs and diaphragm so you can’t breathe. You can die from it,” explains Dr Michael Crampton, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners’ expert on immunisation. About five shots of tetanus vaccine give lifelong protection.
WHEN TO HAVE IT: At 50 if you had the full raft of vaccinations at school as this is when the effectiveness of your school tetanus shot wanes. You’ll also need it if you suffer a dirty or deep wound and haven’t had a vaccination within the past five to 10 years.
The influenza vaccine is provided free by GPS to people in at-risk groups for the flu: people aged over 65, pregnant women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and people with chronic health conditions such as respiratory or cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
“It’s important to call it the influenza vaccine because people dismiss influenza as a flu or cold or something minor and it can be serious,” says Crampton. “It can cause people to go to hospital and it can kill. If you’ve got a condition that’s already put your immune system under stress and then you get influenza on top, your body might not be able to handle the influenza so well”
WHEN TO HAVE IT: Every year if you’re in an at-risk group as the vaccine components change to combat emerging influenza strains.
MEASLES, MUMPS & RUBELLA
In adults, German measles or rubella is usually mild. But in pregnancy it can have serious effects on an unborn baby such as heart defects, deafness, blindness and mental disability. About nine in 10 babies infected with rubella during the first 10 weeks after conception will have a major abnormality, says Booy. “There’s no harm in having the MMR vaccine if you’re unsure whether you’ve had two doses which give lifelong protection,” says Booy.
WHEN TO HAVE IT: When planning a pregnancy.
The pneumococcal vaccine protects against the most common bacteria that cause pneumonia. Unlike influenza, pneumococcal bacteria do not change significantly from year to year, so a single dose is usually enough, says Crampton. According to the latest figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, about 54.4 percent of adults have been vaccinated against pneumococcal disease.
“In some cases, a booster five years later is recommended for people who are 65 or over and who have chronic underlying diseases, such as respiratory or cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” says Crampton.
WHEN TO HAVE IT: If you are over 65, are an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or are a smoker or ex-smoker.
HUMAN PAPILLOMAVIRUS (HPV)
While the HPV vaccine is now part of a school-based vaccination program in Australia, women can benefit from having the vaccine up to the age of 45. After that, women have usually already been exposed to the infections the vaccine protects against, says Booy. The HPV vaccine protects against viruses that can lead to genital warts and cervical cancer. It’s most effective when given before a woman starts having sex.
“But there are four different elements in the vaccine and you may have had one or two of those in your adult life, but not have had the others,” he says.
WHEN TO HAVE IT: Up to the age of 45 if you’re a woman.
Herpes zoster, more commonly known as shingles, is triggered by the virus that causes chickenpox in younger people. About 20 to 30 percent of people will suffer shingles at some stage in their lifetime, and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance says vaccination with the herpes zoster vaccine can prevent around half of all cases. However, Crampton says vaccine supplies are limited and it is costly.
“Shingles can be quite debilitating. It causes a horrific rash that is quite painful and the older you are the more likely it is you will get post-herpetic neuralgia when the nerves carry the shingles virus” explains Crampton.
“This causes nerve damage and leaves a person in extreme pain, even after the rash goes. People have remaining sensitivity in their nerves and this can last for years.”
WHEN TO HAVE IT: Have a single dose of the zoster vaccine after the age of 60.