Most vaccination programs focus on protecting children, even though the major burden of vaccine-preventable diseases is in adults. Lower respiratory infections, for example, (including influenza and pneumonia) led to more than 1.5 million deaths globally in adults aged 50 and over in 2017 and accounted for 23 million years of life lost.
Every year in the United States, 50,000 to 90,000 adults die from vaccine-preventable diseases. Pneumonia is the most common cause of hospital admissions in U.S. adults, leading about 1 million U.S. adults to seek hospital care every year. Characterized by inflammation of the air sacs in the lungs, pneumonia can cause septic shock, renal failure, respiratory failure, and even death in severe cases. Moreover, the majority of influenza deaths are among adults, even though infection rates are highest among children.
Vaccines not only save lives but also contribute to increased productivity and have associated health benefits. When adults are vaccinated, they are able to maintain their daily activities, such as spend time with their families and contribute to the workforce, for longer.
Why are vaccines needed throughout the life span?
Vaccines are important across the life span, for all ages, stages and circumstances. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends vaccines for adolescents, pregnant women, adults, older adults and travelers to protect against a wide range of pathogens.
Every year, children and adults need a flu vaccine to be protected against influenza. Influenza is a viral infection that attacks the respiratory system and can be dangerous at any age. Severe complications include pneumonia, bronchitis, heart problems and asthma flare-ups. Because the influenza virus mutates frequently and studies show that immunity can wear off between flu seasons, you can’t rely on last year’s vaccine to protect you this year.
Immunity can decrease over time, so certain vaccines require booster shots, an additional vaccine dose to strengthen the body’s immune response to that disease. For instance, vaccines that protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap), typhoid and Japanese Encephalitis all require a booster dose. The meningococcal vaccine requires a booster dose for people who are at increased risk for the disease.
Adults may also need catch-up vaccines if there is no evidence of immunity to traditional childhood infections. For instance, adults should receive Tdap vaccine, hepatitis A vaccine and HPV vaccine if they have no evidence or proof of immunity.
As we age, we are exposed to new threats. Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted infection, with 79 million people thought to have an active HPV infection at any given time in the United States. Fortunately, research shows that HPV vaccines are 90 percent effective after three doses against the HPV strains that cause 70 percent of cervical cancers in women worldwide. According to one study, cervical cancer rates in young women in the United States declined by 29 percent after the HPV vaccine was introduced. HPV vaccines are recommended for adolescents starting at age 11 through age 26 for women and age 21 for men.
For pregnant people and mothers, vaccination before, during and after pregnancy helps protect both mother and child from several diseases. CDC recommends whooping cough and flu vaccines during pregnancy. Immunity from these vaccines are passed onto the child and can provide protection for the first few months of life.
Some vaccines are intended exclusively for adults. For instance, the shingles vaccine, which offers protection against herpes zoster, is recommended for adults over the age of 50. Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk for getting shingles, which is a viral infection that causes a very painful rash. Adults older than 50 are at higher risk, and complications include vision loss, neurological problems and skin infections.
Vaccines are sometimes suggested or required when traveling to some countries since there may be diseases that are rare in the traveler’s home country.
Societal benefits of adult immunization programs
Countries with strong Immunization programs that cover the life span benefit from having an infrastructure capable of responding quickly to, pandemics and outbreaks.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the importance of having a strong health system that includes mechanisms to deliver vaccines to an entire population, from children to adults. Countries without a strong adult immunization system will need to quickly build the infrastructure needed to distribute SARS-CoV-2 vaccines when they become available. Lifelong immunization programs further support health systems sustainability by keeping people healthy and out of the healthcare system, and reducing cost.
What are some barriers to adult vaccination?
Even though there are huge benefits to adult vaccination, multiple barriers exist, leading to low immunization rates. At the system level, countries have competing health priorities and may not see adult vaccination as a top priority, especially in low- and middle-income countries with weak health systems and limited resources. On an individual level, some hold false assumptions, such as believing that healthy people do not need immunizations. Adult immunizations are also more easily missed because they are no longer driven by school requirements, and many adults don’t have regular medical checkups. In addition, the lack of knowledge about the benefits for adult vaccinations, lack of support by certain professional medical associations, and limited convenience all contribute to low adult immunization rates.
What are the consequences of bypassing adult immunization?
Bypassing adult immunizations not only has direct health harms, but also has economic consequences. In 2015, influenza, pneumonia and shingles cost the United States more than $8.4 billion through treatment expenses and lost productivity. And looking ahead, failure to establish infrastructure to immunize adults in healthy times foretells failure to immunize in times of crisis, such as in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Adult Vaccine Recommendations
Given the benefits of vaccination, major global organizations all strongly recommend vaccines for adults. Check out the CDC’s guidance and recommendations on adult vaccination for more information. Make sure you and your family members are getting the necessary vaccines!