Action needed to increase adult vaccinations

Everybody knows that kids need “baby shots” – immunizations that protect against formerly common childhood diseases. The shots are required for school entry, so most children are up to date by the time that they are 5 years old.

But what many of their parents and grandparents don’t realize is that adults need immunizations as well. And the adults lag far behind the kids in getting the shots that they need.

A bill currently pending in the Georgia Legislature (SB 85) – which would permit pharmacists to administer some immunizations that are currently off-limits to them – might help rectify the situation.

Pharmacists are already authorized to give flu shots, so simply adding additional vaccines to the list should not be a problem.The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all adults have a “Tdap” shot, which combines the vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough); that people over 60 have a shingles shot; and that those over 65 have a pneumococcus shot.

But in the most recent survey, fewer than two-thirds of adults had received a Tdap or a pneumococcus immunization, and fewer than 20 percent had received a shingles immunization. Rates are lower among African-Americans and Hispanics than among whites.

Adults with chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease or HIV infection, may need additional immunizations, or the routine immunizations at an earlier age. And the CDC recommends a flu shot every year for everybody over 6 months old.

Teenagers need immunizations as well, including Tdap but also vaccinations that protect against pneumonia, meningitis and human papillomavirus (the virus that causes cancer of the cervix). However, teens are no more up to date than adults, and in Georgia they lag behind the national average.

One of the consequences is that we are suffering through a national whooping cough epidemic, with tens of thousands of cases reported since 2005. The disease is generally less severe in adults than in children, but adults can transmit the disease to children. Whooping cough is particularly severe in infants, in whom it can cause death.

Even if the bill becomes law, older adults and the parents of teens will need to be more conscientious about getting the shots they need – if not from a pharmacist or a private physician, then through the public health department, where immunizations are available at low cost. It is time for us adults to start acting like grown-ups!

Dr. Daniel S. Blumenthal is associate dean of Community Health at the Morehouse School of Medicine, works closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is a leading national expert on immunizations, and the racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in vaccination rates