Think you’re too old to be vaccinated? You’re not!

The common misconception that vaccination is important for children but not so relevant once you hit adulthood is a long way from the facts. You are never too old to get vaccinated. Taking the US as a developed country example, of the more than 40,000 deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases that occur every year, 99% are in adults.

There are many diseases which vaccination can help prevent in adulthood, including shingles, flu and whooping cough. However if you haven’t had a shot or jab recently, you’re probably in good company; adult vaccination rates remain low. Working as a physician, I have seen for myself the struggle that patients have recalling their vaccination history and how health care providers often don’t feel well enough informed to discuss vaccination schedules and benefits for adults.

Vaccine-preventable diseases have a significant impact on global public health and quality of life. For example the CDC estimates that about 900,000 people get pneumococcal pneumonia every year, leading to as many as 19,000 deaths.

From an economic point of view, there are also significant costs, from health care expenses and hospital stays to loss of productivity from days off work. In the US in 2015, there were 14.1 million cases of vaccine- preventable diseases attributable to unvaccinated adults. According to one study, of the total economic burden of approximately $9 billion due to direct costs and productivity losses from vaccine-preventable diseases, lack of vaccination was responsible for $7.1 billion.

In addition to the direct benefits of disease prevention there are some other notable indirect medical benefits. For me the decision to get vaccinated is also about the “herd effect”, the protection vaccination may offer to those around me and to those who are unable to receive selected vaccines due to being immunocompromised.

You may be wondering about the science behind adult vaccination. The bad news is that after early adulthood the body’s immune system starts to age and becomes less responsive. The good news is that vaccination, can work with the body’s natural defenses to enhance our immune system’s response, helping us to remain healthy and active as we age.

In the face of changing demographics, adult vaccination can help cut costs and keep individuals, families and workforces healthier for longer. So with all these benefits how can we increase coverage?

I believe we need to normalise the decision to vaccinate in adulthood, based on clear and meaningful communication around the benefits it can offer. Just as we have done with childhood vaccination, exercise and healthy eating we need to make sure the decision to get a vaccination as an adult is almost instinctive.

As part of this we need to make vaccination the easy choice and think of innovative ways to make vaccination more easily available to adults, such as vaccination at pharmacies or workplaces, and other places that are frequently visited.

And perhaps one of the most important ways to increase coverage will be to equip our healthcare providers on the frontline of vaccination with the information they need to be confident enough to initiate a conversation on adult vaccination and answer questions from their patients.

Given the potential adult vaccination has to cut costs and most importantly to keep us healthier for longer isn’t it worth taking the decision to reprioritise vaccination and give ourselves and our families a shot at a healthier future?

Thomas Breuer

Thomas Breuer is GSK Vaccines Chief Medical Officer. He leads the global medical affairs organisation, safety and...
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