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Illness prevention and treatment

September 13, 2011

Vaccines are not just for children

Vaccines offer protection for adults as well as children from a range of serious or potentially fatal diseases.

Unlike past eras when young and old often died from infectious diseases, those diseases account for less than 5% of all deaths in Canada.¹

Vaccines used in Canada are safe and their effectiveness is monitored constantly. Yet, like any medical procedure, immunization has some risks and you may be one of the few to react to a specific vaccine. So, before getting any shot, discuss its risks and the benefits with your family physician or research it on reputable Internet sites, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada or the Mayo Clinic.

The following are vaccines Canadian and U.S. health agencies recommend for adults:

Seasonal flu vaccine. The flu vaccine is updated annually and you should get it every year, especially if you are 50 or older, have a chronic illness or a weak immune system, or live in a long-term care facility. It is not recommended for those who are allergic to eggs, had an allergic reaction to the flu vaccine in the past or are currently ill. Also, talk to your doctor if you have ever had Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Pneumonia is an inflammation of the lungs caused by infection that can range from mild to life-threatening. It is often a complication of the flu. While young, healthy people can get pneumonia, it poses a bigger threat to people over 65, those with a chronic illness or a weak immune system.²

In Canada, we have two pneumonia vaccines: an older one, polysaccharide pneumococcal vaccine, and a newer one, conjugate pneumococcal vaccine. You may have to pay for the latter as it’s not currently part of Canada’s routine immunization program. Most of us need one dose of a pneumonia vaccine, and we can get it at any time. In certain circumstances, you may need a second dose. Discuss which is right for you with your physician.

Shingles (herpes zoster) is an extremely painful disease that may produce debilitating, persistent nerve damage. It strikes when the chickenpox virus reactivates after lying dormant for decades. If you are among the 90% of Canadians who have had chickenpox, you are at risk for shingles, a risk that increases as you get older. You may even be at risk if you’ve been immunized against chickenpox, since the chickenpox vaccine does not protect against the shingles virus.³

If you’re over 60 and have had chickenpox, discuss getting the vaccine with your doctor. Since it’s relatively new to Canada, it is not covered by most provincial health plans but may be covered by some private health insurance plans. Unfortunately, it’s rather expensive.

Booster shots. If you’re 65 or older and had your last tetanus vaccine more than 10 years ago, you may need a booster for tetanus, diphtheria and/or whooping cough (pertusssis). Consult your doctor and be sure to mention any illnesses and allergies you now have, and if you’ve ever had Guillain-Barre syndrome.

You should also talk to your doctor about other vaccines you may need if travel, work or lifestyle expose you to certain diseases. This includes vaccines for Hepatitis A and B, chickenpox if you’ve never had it and meningitis, especially if you’ve had your spleen removed. Also discuss vaccines for polio and tropical diseases, if you plan to visit areas where these types of diseases may exist.

Since our doctors are overburdened and the time they can allocate to our visits is limited, do your part by keeping a record of the names and dates of all your vaccinations. And take that ounce of prevention by asking your doctor which vaccines you need to stay healthy.

Sources: ¹ Canadian Coalition for Immunization and Promotion, ² Canadian Coalition for Immunization and Promotion; Mayo Clinic, ³ Canadian Coalition for Immunization and Promotion

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