Nobody likes getting shots, but as an adult there are some vaccines important enough to suck it up for next time you visit the doctor.
In recent years, more parents in the U.S. have chosen not to vaccinate their children, going against traditional medical advice. During the 2013–2014 school year, 26 states failed to meet the goal of having 95 percent of kindergartners immunized, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Concurrently, the U.S. is experiencing larger and more frequent outbreaks of diseases, like the measles or whooping cough, than they’ve seen in decades.
“When we start having people refuse to be immunized, then these illnesses can start to have a resurgence in the population,” says Dr. David Zich assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “For most of these people who weren’t immunized, they will be OK. But they run the risk of killing those people around them that are more susceptible.”
It’s more important than ever to make sure you’re educated about what to do to stay healthy — plus, some newer vaccines have hit the scene in recent years. Here’s what you need to know about vaccines to protect yourself and those around you.
Why Vaccines Are So Important
Were you immunized as a child? If you don’t know, find out, ASAP! “If somebody grew up in a family that was opposed to vaccines, then they usually know that, otherwise they likely just got the routine vaccinations that were available at that time,” Zich says.
Most adults have probably received shots protecting them from diseases like whooping cough, measles and the mumps. However, it’s important to know that your immunity to some diseases, like the mumps, grows weaker over time — so you may be due for a booster shot. Plus, new vaccines are constantly being developed, so there might be new or better immunizations available to you now that didn’t exist when you were a child.
“There are also people who will get vaccinated and their body just simple won’t respond,” Zich says. “For instance, with the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine that is receiving so much attention right now, after the first dose about 92 percent of people form immunity to it, and after the second dose, about 98 percent of people form immunity. But that still leaves two percent [not protected].”
As more people choose not to have their children vaccinated, the risk of diseases spreading becomes even more likely. Currently, the U.S. is experiencing a large multi-state measles outbreak that originated in Disneyland. The majority of people who contracted the diseases were unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
Zich says some parents fear vaccines may be dangerous to their children — but argues that the benefits of vaccines are far greater than the potential risks. “It’s like saying I’m not going to wear a seatbelt because, ‘I know a person who was in an accident and got trapped in seatbelt and was significantly injured or died, therefore seatbelts are wrong,’” Zich says. “But you’re ignoring the fact that seatbelts save hundreds of thousand of lives a year.”
6 Vaccinations Worth Discussing With Your Doctor
If you have no clue when you last received a tetanus shot, don’t sweat it. Head to your doctor, and get the shot again. According to Zich, it’s totally safe to get re-vaccinated more frequently than every 10 years (the currently recommendation). The Tdap shot offers a three-in-one benefit, too. It also protects against diphtheria and pertussis, or whooping cough.
In 2012, a frightening 48,277 cases of whooping cough were reported in the U.S. — the highest number of cases reported since 1955, according to the CDC. “If an adult gets [whooping cough], it starts off like any other nasty cold; it’s difficult to tell the difference. But then it can develop into this terrible cough that lasts weeks to months,” Zich says. “It’s extremely annoying to adults, but usually is not dangerous. However, to infants who may not have immunity to it yet, it can actually kill them.”
Children aren’t fully vaccinated against whooping cough until they are 15 months old (if they’re vaccinated at all). That’s why if you’re spending time around young children, you should make sure you’ve gotten a Tdap shot recently. Women are also required to be re-immunized with each pregnancy, Zich says.
2. HPV Vaccine
The HPV vaccine is fairly new, and protects against several strains of the human papillomavirus, which has been linked to an increased risk for cervical cancer and genital warts. Currently it’s recommended for women ages 11 to 26 years old, and men ages 11 to 21 years old — though it’s approved for men up to age 26. Both men and women require three doses to get the benefits of the vaccine, which can help protect against up to 70 percent of cervical cancers and 90 percent of genital warts cases.
What’s the difference between “recommended” age limits, and “approved” age limits for vaccines? “Recommended is where there’s pretty good evidence that it will be beneficial for that population,” Zich says. “Approved means it has been tested and is thought to be safe.”
“Unless you live in a literal bubble, every day you are being exposed to dozens of viruses and bacteria, and forming immune responses against them.”
Technically, if you’re over 26 years old, you’re not supposed to get an HPV shot because the vaccine hasn’t been tested among that age group yet. “Would it be OK if you’re 26 and a half? Yes, I’m sure it probably would be, but since it’s not approved you would have a hard time finding a physician to give it to you, simply because of liability issues,” Zich says.
In 2000, the CDC declared that measles had been eliminated in the United States, thanks to vaccinations. However, it has re-emerged in recent years (only 37 people in the country were diagnosed in 2004, compared to 655 people in 2014). Currently, a large outbreak is occurring in the U.S, mostly among unvaccinated people.
Even if you got the vaccine as a child, college students should get a booster of MMR, particularly if they are living in dorms, Zich says. “Every once in awhile, we see a resurgence of mumps as well, so this shot helps boost immunity to all three of those,” Zich says.
Beyond that, here’s what you need to know about staying protected from the measles, given recent outbreaks:
- If you were born before 1957, you’re considered immune by common exposure, since the virus was circulating in the United States during this time.
- If you were born between 1957 and 1967, you should be revaccinated. The measles vaccine first became available in 1963. However, several types of measles vaccines existed during this period, and one type was not effective.
- If you were born after 1967 and were vaccinated, you should be immune.
However, the vaccine is known to be ineffective in about two percent of the population. So if you’re a health care worker, teacher, work at a place that caters to children (like Disneyland), or if you’re traveling internationally to places where measles is endemic, you can undergo a simple blood test to make sure you have immunity, Zich says. If it turns out you aren’t immune, you can get the vaccine again.
This vaccine was first recommended for adolescents in 2005. Now, many colleges require people who received the vaccine at age 11 or 12 to get a booster shot before entering university. College dormitories can be hotspots for fast-spreading diseases like meningitis, thanks to communal living arrangements. According to the CDC, first year students living in dormitories have a higher risk of contracting this life-threatening disease, compared with other people in the same age group.
Recent outbreaks of meningitis at Princeton University and University of California Santa Barbra prompted renewed interest in the meningococcal vaccine over the past few years. This vaccine doesn’t protect against all strains of meningitis, but rather two out of the three major strains.
Haven’t had the ‘pox? Get vaccinated! The CDC recommends adults receive a two-dose series of immunizations if they never had this itchy rash as a kid. This vaccine became available in the U.S. in 1995 for people ages 12 months to 12 years old, so if you were over age 12 in 1995 and haven’t gotten the virus, it’s worth looking into at your next doctor’s visit.
If you had only a mild case of the chickenpox as a child, experiencing a recurrence of the disease is unusual but not impossible. In these cases, vaccination isn’t recommended, says Zich. But if you’re concerned about your immunity, you can get tested at the doctor’s office to see if you would benefit from receiving this shot.
The hepatitis B vaccine was only approved in 1986, so if you were born before then you might want to ask your doctor about getting this shot (most children born after 1986 will have received it). While this vaccine is technically recommended for “special populations,” don’t assume you don’t qualify. The criteria actually apply to many young, healthy people in the United States. You might want this vaccine if: You’re not in a long-term monogamous relationship, you’re going to have sex with more than one person in your lifetime, you’ve ever been diagnosed with an STD or at a high-risk of contracting one. Health care workers, diabetics and people with chronic illnesses also qualify.
Planning an exotic vacation? Depending on which countries you are visiting, there are a number of vaccines you might want to look into getting before hopping on the plane. Zich recommends visiting a travel clinic, where physicians can advise you on immunizations and other health precautions you should take on your trip. To find a clinic near you, visit the CDC’s web site.
And let’s not forget, the CDC recommends that all healthy people six months and older get immunized against the flu every year. If you have a chronic medical condition, or are over 60 years old, you should also speak to your physician about other vaccinations you may need (such as for shingles and pneumonia).
“Unless you live in a literal bubble, every day you are being exposed to dozens of viruses and bacteria, and forming immune responses against them,” Zich says. “All immunizations are is taking, in a controlled environment, the specific illnesses we’re targeting and doing things to either inactivate them or make them as harmless as possible.”