Too many seniors not getting their shots


IMMUNIZATION RATES FOR SENIORS

2014 flu vaccination

Georgia: 62.8 percent

U.S.: 66.7 percent

2013 pneumonia vaccination

Georgia: 67 percent

U.S.: 69 percent

2013 shingles vaccination

Georgia: N/A

U.S.: 24 percent

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Georgia Department of Public Health

RECOMMENDED VACCINES FOR SENIORS

  • Annual flu vaccine. Can choose the high-dose flu shot, specifically designed for adults 65 and older to provide greater immunity. The four-strain flu dose also will provide broader coverage than the standard dosage.
  • One-time pneumonia vaccine after age 65.
  • One-time shingles vaccine recommended for ages 60 and older.
  • One-time pertussis booster vaccine, or Tdap, at age 65 to boost immunity against whooping cough.

Source: Georgia Department of Public Health

Almost 40 percent of Georgia’s seniors skipped the flu vaccine last year, this despite the fact that adults 65 and older are at high risk for developing flu-related complications that can lead to hospitalization and even death.

And this happened though getting a shot is as easy as walking into a local grocery store or corner pharmacy, with minimal or no cost on some Medicare or private insurance plans. Some health clinics in Georgia are offering drive-thru service. Pull up, stick your arm out the window and a nurse will give you the vaccine. You don’t even have to get out of the vehicle.

Access and cost are not hurdles for health care providers striving to boost flu immunization rates among this age group. The greatest obstacle is in dispelling the myth that the flu vaccine can cause the flu, observes Immunization Program Director Sheila Lovett of the Georgia Department of Public Health.

The virus in the vaccine is actually inactive and technically can’t cause the flu, Lovett says.

“There may be some side effects, like aches or sniffles, but these clear up within a day or two. And these are rare occurrences, anyway,” she said.

Seniors are encouraged to get their annual shots now to give them plenty of time to build immunity before the flu season begins in earnest later in the year. Among the vaccine choices is the high-dose flu shot, or Fluzone High-Dose, which was designed to improve immune response in adults 65 and older. Another option is the quadrivalent or four-strain vaccine for broader coverage against influenza.

Last year, 62.8 percent of older Georgians received the flu vaccination, a percentage that lags behind national stats of 66.7 percent.

During an average flu season, an estimated 200,000 people in the U.S. will be hospitalized with flu-related symptoms, and flu-associated deaths could be as high as 49,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 90 percent of these will be senior adults.

Lovett said Georgia has had a steady increase in flu immunization rates among seniors over the past few years. But national rates have remained flat, hovering in the 65 percent range for the past 15 years. The federal government’s goal is 90 percent by 2020.

“Nationally and locally, we have a lot to do,” Lovett said.

The state agency continues to work with public and private health care providers and hospitals, giving them educational tools as well as hosting special outreach programs to ensure seniors get their needed vaccines, Lovett said.

Seniors also lag behind in getting other recommended shots. Only 67 percent of older Georgians had been vaccinated for pneumonia as of 2013, the latest data available. The state’s goal is 90 percent. The one-time vaccine is recommended after age 65.

And nationally, less than one in four older adults had been vaccinated for shingles as of 2013. Shingles is the reactivation of chickenpox, which lies dormant in an estimated 90 percent of all adults in the U.S., according to the CDC. When the virus re-emerges, it comes with a rash and stabbing pain that can linger for months or even years.

The risk of getting shingles increases with age, and so does the chance of developing long-term pain and other complications. Adults should get a shingles vaccination at age 60.

Georgia does not keep stats on the percentage of seniors vaccinated for shingles, Lovett said.

“The biggest challenge with this is in educating seniors that it is available. We haven’t heard a lot of resistance from providers who do offer it,” Lovett said.