Pulse: Health: Stick It to Me!

Adults need vaccines just as much as kids do


At a recent 60th birthday party, I overheard a woman badgering her skeptical friends to get the new shingles vaccine. Shingles, a cousin of chicken pox characterized by a blistering skin rash, is often described as the worst pain in medicine. “If only I’d had the sense to get the shingles vaccine,” the woman railed, wineglass in hand, “I could have prevented this, or at least have been a lot less miserable.”

For reasons it’s tough to pinpoint, doctors who take care of adults aren’t very good at recommending vaccines — other than flu shots — to their patients. Says Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, “I don’t understand why fewer than 50 percent of adults get the vaccines they ought to, compared to 90 percent of kids.”

More of us might get vaccinated if we were aware of the benefits. Take shingles, for example. A report from the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey says that 25 percent of all healthy adults will get shingles sooner or later, and the incidence increases with age. The vaccine not only cuts your chances of getting shingles in half; it can make you feel better if you do get the illness.

With summer travel looming, this is a particularly good time to think about other inoculations, including the one that protects against hepatitis A, which the Centers for Disease Control say is the most common vaccine-preventable disease acquired by people venturing abroad. Here is Offit’s list of must-have shots for adults — whom he defines as “age 19 to death.” While you probably had some as kids, vaccines’ protection wanes over time, so you need a booster every 10 years.

Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough). While diphtheria is relatively rare, you could be at risk for tetanus, also known as lockjaw, from any kind of dirty cut. And this is the time of year when we’re more likely to be hiking and doing yard work. As for whooping cough, though it mainly affects children, it’s transmitted to them from adults. You need this vaccine mostly as a precaution against passing the bug along to your wee ones.

MMR (measles, mumps, rubella). The target group here is people born after 1957 who had neither the vaccine nor the diseases. If you don’t know, there’s a simple blood test to check immunity and whether you need a booster or the original.

Chicken pox. If you were never vaccinated or infected and you’re under 60, this one’s for you. At 60, what you’ll want instead is Zostavax, the shingles vaccine. A quarter of shingles victims develop stabbing nerve pain that can last for months, even years. You’re especially at risk if you’ve had chicken pox, because the bug hibernates, then mysteriously reactivates as shingles once you’re eligible for social security.

HPV (humanpapiloma virus). There are more than 100 types of this highly contagious sexually transmitted virus, but four of them cause 70 percent of cervical cancer cases and 90 percent of genital warts cases. The breakthrough vaccine against those four strains created a rumpus last year when the governor of Texas tried to mandate it for all teen girls statewide. Although he was accused of pushing some kind of sex education, he was really only trying to protect those who couldn’t afford the $300 three-shot regimen. For now, the CDC recommends the vaccine for girls and women up to age 26.

Flu. Influenza kills 35,000 to 40,000 Americans every year. Most of the viruses migrate north from South America. Usually, that gives researchers time to figure out what to protect against, despite the rash of cases this past winter of an unexpected strain. Until you’re 50, a flu shot is a smart precaution; after that, it’s essential yearly.

Hepatitis A. If your business or vacation travel takes you anywhere outside of Europe, Australia and Japan, there’s a high risk of picking up hep A from contaminated water or food, no matter how careful you are. With the vaccine, your risk is practically nil.