Seniors Need Vaccinations -- but Many Aren't Getting Them - TheStreet

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is adamant that seniors need to get four crucial vaccinations to ward off serious, sometimes deadly diseases. On the CDC must-get list are shots for flu, Td/Tdap (a combination vaccine that knocks out tetanus, pertussis, diphtheria), pneumonia and shingles. But the puzzle is: why do so many skip this advice?

A deal sweetener: Medicare Part B (which most elderly Americans have) covers flu and pneumonia shots. Medicare Part D - drug coverage, sold separately to traditional Medicare consumers but included in most managed care Medicare Advantage plans - should cover the shingles and Td/Tdap shots. Usually there is zero-out of-pocket, even for the full gamut of vaccinations.

And yet data out of Medicare say that only perhaps three in four seniors get flu shots -- meaning one in four don't bother. Rates for the other shots are lower.

Some experts believe that lately vaccination rates for seniors may in fact be dropping even lower.

That zeroes in on the key question: do seniors in fact need vaccinations? Aren't they just for children? Dr. Joel Shalowitz, a medical doctor and a professor at Northwestern University, put it bluntly: "Vaccinations are not just for children."

Stacey Gorski, an immunology professor at the University of the Sciences, said that in fact seniors may need vaccinations even more than other age groups, because, she said, seniors' immune systems are weaker than they are in younger people. That makes them more susceptible to disease, and when they get a disease - such as flu or pneumonia - they may have a tougher time warding it off. A disease that might be a minor event to a healthy 15-year-old can be life threatening to many 75-year-olds.

Is there a good reason for a senior not to get a vaccination? Shalowitz said: "The main reason they should not is allergy." 

Shalowitz added: "Why don't they [get their shots]? The patients I have seen who refuse say they will get the flu or a cold from the shot. There can be a very mild reaction but that reason is not true and should not prevent people from getting immunized." Plainly put: it's commonly believed but it is a myth that the standard vaccinations will give you the disease itself. In just isn't true, said multiple sources.

Terry Fulmer, president of The John A. Hartford Foundation, which focuses on care of older adults, said that at least some seniors may not get vaccinations due to mobility issues - it's tough for them to get around. Others have memory impairment and may not remember that it's time to get a shot. Both are valid issues but at least in some communities mobile vaccination programs gear up to bring vaccinations to seniors.

Fulmer also said that vaccinations are not forever. That is, they need to be renewed. But many seniors do not understand this. They recall a tetanus shot from 50 years ago and wrongly assume they are still good to go. Flu shots, for instance, are updated annually.

The tetanus - diphtheria shot needs to be updated every ten years, said Shalowitz.

Dr. Stephen Schimpff, former CEO of the University of Maryland Medical Center, said that pneumonia vaccinations need updating every five years.

The shingles vaccination is relatively new - timelines may change - but for now, said Schimpff, one shot administered around age 65 should do you.

How effective are vaccinations? In a word, very. CDC data show that flu vaccinations reduced disease incidence by 98.6%.

The shingles vaccine, said Schimpff, "reduces the risk by 50% and for those who still get it, the disease is less severe."

As for tetanus, the once deadly disease - colloquially known as lockjaw - has largely been eliminated, mainly because of the effectiveness of the vaccinations. But - underlining the fact that vaccinations are not forever - "the leading demographic for lethal tetanus infections is in the elderly! This is a disease that is incurable once contracted, but is all but vanished except in the elderly where due to poor vaccination rates, immunity wanes and cases occur," said Dr. Jordan Tishler, who runs Inhale MD Health and Wellness.

Bottomline: Vaccinations work. They are especially important for the elderly. They usually are free under Medicare. That's why many experts said that a crucial message to get out to seniors is: Get your vaccinations, now.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held 0 positions in the stocks mentioned.