Immunizations: Big shots for big kids

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

August 2009

So you thought you had all the shots you'd ever need by the time you got to first grade! That strategy was alright in the 1970s but today's adults could avoid some serious problems by getting immunized according to 21s century standards.

Vaccines have some limitations. They don't always work, a few unlucky souls have serious side effects and sometimes we need boosters late in life. But for physicians of my era who had to watch children die from measles, polio, whooping cough, bloodstream infections or meningitis, the nearly total eradication of these diseases by vaccines brings an emotional response, not just a cold scientific one.

If you're over the age of about 60 there are three vaccines that you would be wise to consider, especially since they have minimal side effects but could be lifesaving.

The first is influenza vaccine. I can already hear the groans from those readers who "got the flu" from the vaccine. If you did suffer from the flu after getting the shot it was either because you were already incubating it because you waited for the flu season to start or you caught it in your doctor's waiting room! The vaccine contains only killed virus and cannot cause influenza. (For those who don't believe me, I'm waiting for your e-mail.) Yes, the vaccines of the 50s were "dirty" and made lots of people sick but attorneys and the FDA have forced manufacturers to turn out a much safer product.

Older victims of influenza often die of hospital-acquired infection. That should be your biggest motivation. Secondary infection with the staphylococcus bacterium killed thousands of seniors with influenza in years past. The newest strains include Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) that is not only resistant to common antibiotics but that is highly invasive as well.

The elderly are susceptible to a common form of pneumonia for which there are effective vaccines. Prior to the availability of penicillin the Pneumococcus bacterium was a leading cause of death. Some strains have now become resistant to several antibiotics, making vaccination even more important. Patients with heart disease and diabetes are at risk and most people beyond the age of 65 fit one or both of those categories.

Shingles is nothing more than a reactivation of the chickenpox virus that most of us endured as kids because there was no vaccine before 1995. After chickenpox has run its usually mild course the virus takes up residence in the spinal cord. Years or decades later stress or some other trigger causes it to erupt in the form of shingles, the popular term for herpes zoster.

As our population ages about half of those reaching the 70s and beyond are likely to be affected by herpes zoster. The blistering rash is always uncomfortable, sometimes excruciatingly painful and it can occasionally cause loss of vision. The vaccine may not completely prevent the disease but usually makes it milder.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.