There continue to be mixed opinions about vaccinations in the United States. Well before COVID-19 vaccines existed, people were already getting into arguments about the safety of, and need for, childhood vaccines for diseases like measles and polio.
Among adults in the U.S., vaccination rates are quite disappointing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2019 – 2020 (the last period for which data are available):
- Only around 22 percent of adults had received all age-appropriate vaccines. This rate was 8.2 percent among adults aged 50 – 64 and 27.6 among those aged 19 – 49.
- Among adults over age 65, only 67.5 percent had received a pneumococcal immunization; 62 percent were up to date on their tetanus immunization; and 15.1 were fully vaccinated against herpes zoster, the virus that causes shingles.
- Vaccination rates were lower among Black and Hispanic adults than those who were white, Asian, or other races/ethnicities.
As a someone who understands what a game changer vaccination has been, these attitudes and rates are perplexing. And as a doctor, I also find them very distressing. So, I would like to remind people why vaccination matters.
Recognizing One of the Greatest Achievements in Public Health
Immunizations are one of the most important public health advances in our nation’s health history. So much so that the CDC has declared August National Immunization Awareness Month. And awareness is the key word. All too often, folks may feel they are protected when, in fact, they may not be.
Awareness is the Key
I still vividly remember the one and only tetanus patient I took care of when I was an intern. In fact, tetanus has become so rare and so preventable that it is uncommon nowadays to meet a doctor who has treated it.
My patient, who was in her early 60s, could not remember whether she had ever completed a tetanus series as a child. She knew, for sure, that she had never had a tetanus booster.
It was the summer and she was barefoot, mowing her grass, when she cut her foot on a rock in the soil. Although this patient was lucky enough to receive tetanus antitoxin, she still spent months in the intensive care unit on a ventilator while we waited for her muscle spasms to slowly resolve. This agony wouldn’t have been necessary had her immunizations been up-to-date. (Another amazing health care advance of the 20th century: the ICU!)
We’ve Come a Long Way
It is easy to forget that the top causes of death in the United States in 1900 were infectious diseases — not heart disease, not cancer, not diabetes, not COPD. Most people didn’t die from a chronic illness, but rather from an acute illness, like tetanus. Not long ago, people feared diseases like polio. In fact, there are still folks alive today who lived through the polio epidemic of the 1940s – ’50s.
While the polio vaccine is often recognized for its profound effect on public health, the smallpox vaccination probably saved more lives. And just think of how many lives we could have saved if the flu vaccine had been around before the 1918 “Spanish” flu epidemic.
One of the best sources of information about vaccines and immunization is the Vaccines & Immunization page on the CDC website. Here are some points to keep in mind:
- All adults should receive vaccines to protect their health, even if they’re healthy. Everyone should see their doctor or health care provider to assess their vaccination needs.
- Certain vaccines are recommended based on a person’s age, occupation, or health condition.
- Being vaccinated doesn’t always mean your body will develop full immunity to the disease targeted by the vaccine. It does, however, increase the likelihood that you will survive the disease.
- Vaccination is important for two reasons. One is that it protects the person receiving the vaccine, and a second reason is that it helps prevent the spread of disease, particularly among our most vulnerable; babies and the elderly.
- Vaccination currently prevents 4 – 5 million deaths globally every year, according to the World Health Organization.
Immunization Schedules and Recommended Vaccinations
Because immunization schedules vary depending on your age and gender, it’s important to talk with your doctor about recommended vaccinations. Our Preventive Care Guidelines are a good place to start; you’ll find a list of vaccinations and age recommendations there.
And remember, talk to your provider before you travel abroad, as you may need special vaccines to protect you against diseases common in other parts of the world.
Medicare and Immunizations
As a doctor, I know it’s critically important that patients know what immunizations and vaccines they should have. Medicare members also need to know which ones are paid for by Medicare. The way Medicare covers them depends on which vaccines you need, so it’s very important that you look at your Summary of Benefits.
But the bottom line is that vaccination is critical, especially among older people. Please check with your doctor to make sure your immunizations are up to date. If they’re not, please get those missing vaccinations. It’s tragic to suffer from vaccine-preventable diseases when there’s such an easy and reliable fix.