Older Americans Are Not Getting Vaccinated

A couple of years ago, we blogged that although the childhood vaccinations were very much on the minds of parents, adults weren’t too good about getting themselves vaccinated. That’s still the case, and it’s still a problem.

For example, about 3 in 4 U.S. residents older than 60, according to federal data crunched by KaiserHealthNews.org (KHN), don’t get a shingles vaccine. That’s dopey, not only because shingles is a miserable disorder that presents with painful body rashes that can last for months and can even cause blindness, but also because, under the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), it’s free, as are all vaccines, because they’re considered preventive services.

Despite the anti-vaxxer campaign against inoculating children that spreads dangerous ignorance, vaccination rates for children still are higher than 9 in 10. But in addition to shingles, the rate at which older adults get vaccinated against flu, pneumonia or tetanus have remained flat, leaving millions of older adults at risk of dying or being hospitalized.

Another reason adults should get all their vaccinations is because some, like the new tetanus vaccine, include a booster for whooping cough, which not only protects seniors, but their grandchildren.

Here’s a list of vaccinations recommended for adults from one of our Better Health Care newsletters.

The particulars:

  • 1 in 3 seniors skips the flu vaccine, which is recommended annually for everyone older than 6 months.
  • As many as 49,000 Americans, mostly older adults, die of flu or related illnesses every flu.
  • 4 in 10 seniors are not vaccinated for pneumonia, which is recommended once for people 65 and older.
  • Pneumonia strikes about 900,000 seniors a year.
  • Nearly half of seniors are not immunized for tetanus, which is recommended once every 10 years.
  • The tetanus vaccine protects against a rare but often deadly bacterial condition known as “lockjaw.”
  • 3 in 4 adults don’t get vaccinated against shingles, which is recommended once for people 60 an older.

About 1 million cases of shingles occur every year in the U.S., half among people older than 60. Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, and having had it when you were younger does not protect you from its reactivation. Nearly 1 in 3 people in the U.S. will develop shingles.

Some vaccines aren’t as effective as others; for example, according to the Health and Human Services Department’s National Vaccine Program, childhood vaccines for measles and polio are nearly 100% effective, but shots for flu and pneumonia vary in effectiveness — last year’s flu vaccine reduced someone’s chances of getting sick by only about 19% percent, which contributes to some peoples’ unwillingness to be vaccinated. “Still,” as KHN noted, “if a flu shot doesn’t prevent flu every time, it often helps ensure a milder case.”

Medicare patients don’t get the financial coverage for vaccines as people covered by ACA plans, except for flu and pneumonia shots, which are covered under Medicare Part B. Shingles and tetanus inoculations covered under Medicare Part D and often require co-payments of $100 or more.

Which makes no sense. But no one ever claimed that the U.S. health-care system was logical, or even based on best practices.

Sometimes, KHN pointed out, people don’t get a shingles shot because their primary care physicians often don’t have it in stock, because it has a limited shelf life and/or because billing private Medicare prescription drug insurers is a pain. So doctors often write a prescription for the patient to get vaccinated at a pharmacy or health clinic, but for some people, that’s one step too many.

For the who, what and when of adult vaccines, visit the government website here.

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