Protect yourself: Risk factors and immunizations for seniors

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Medical advances have afforded us one of the greatest success stories in human history: Immunizations. Many of us can remember disease outbreaks that have caused serious symptoms and in some cases even death, or lining up in elementary school to receive the polio vaccine. Some might even recall being vaccinated against smallpox.

Common reasons for incomplete immunizations

Despite recent advances in vaccine development, immunization rates remain low—particularly among elderly adults. There are a number of possible reasons for this, including a lack of understanding about vaccines and their safety, fear of injections,  misunderstanding disease prevention and missed opportunities for getting immunized while in hospital, at a healthcare provider’s office or in a nursing home.

Immunizations for seniors

Today, we are very fortunate that several beneficial vaccines are available for the elderly. The following paragraphs outline the most common.

You can obtain these vaccines either at your family physician’s office or in a clinic setting.

Influenza

All Canadian adults are encouraged to receive a seasonal influenza vaccine each year. This vaccine is especially important for those aged 65 years and older, and is even further encouraged for individuals whose immune system is compromised by an illness such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer or any other condition that might cause the person to be more susceptible to “the flu.”

The influenza vaccine is typically administered in mid to late fall and can be received either at your family physician’s office or in a “flu” clinic. Influenza is characterized as respiratory in nature, with symptoms such as coughing, extremely sore throat, fever and general malaise. The flu vaccine is not effective against so-called “stomach flu,” with symptoms such as vomiting, stomach cramps and diarrhea.

Influenza vaccination is free in most provinces. If you live remotely then there might be a fee as a result of the vaccine having to be transported and stored, but this is usually not the case.

Herpes zoster (shingles)

The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine may be given to adults aged 50–59 years and is routinely recommended for those aged 60 years and older. Be aware that there is a fee for this vaccination, unless you have a drug or treatment plan that covers the cost.

Pneumococcal (pneumonia)

A single dose of the pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for adults aged 65 years and older, and especially those with a compromised immune system or history of pneumonia. One lifetime re-immunization may be considered for those who are at highest risk of invasive pneumococcal disease.

Less common immunizations for seniors

The vaccines listed above are the more common immunizations. Less common vaccinations are also available, such as against Bacille Calmette–Guérin to counteract tuberculosis and cholera for the prevention of diarrhea in adult travellers. Vaccinations are also available against Haemophilus influenzae type B, hepatitis A and B, rabies, smallpox, typhoid and yellow fever. These vaccines might be advised in specific risk situations. You may be charged a fee per dose, depending on the circumstance under which you receive the vaccination.

Immunization strategies

Some provinces and territories in Canada have put strategies in place to improve the  rate of immunization uptake and reduce the number of vaccine-preventable diseases. As an example, Alberta is in the middle of a 10-year strategy (2007–2017) that is being led by Alberta Health and Wellness in collaboration with many other provincial ministries.

Because of the large numbers of First Nations people residing in Alberta and an increased incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases among that population, the province has made the vaccination of First Nations people a priority.

Protecting yourself

There are several things you and your loved ones can do stay informed and protect yourselves against vaccine-preventable diseases:

  1. Talk to the doctor/other healthcare professional at your next check-up and find out which boosters and vaccines are recommended specifically for you.
  2. Ask your doctor about the risks and benefits of the suggested immunizations.
  3. Look out for immunization clinics in your own community, such as those held for seasonal influenza.
  4. Don’t be afraid to get immunized!

Our parents had to take a risk when they had us immunized at an early age with very little information available to help them decide on the risks and benefits of those vaccinations.

With the advances in medicine today, we know that adult immunization are extremely valuable and can save older adults and others from serious illness.

Be immunization-informed and make the decision that is best for you or your loved ones, so that you can all stay on the road to better health!

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Deb Jenkins

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Advanced Practice Nurse, longstanding LTC Nurse (Former Best Practice Coordinator for LTC at the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care).

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