Fifty and Fabulous, But NOT Fully Vaccinated
Aug 29, 2018
By Amy Pisani, Executive Director, Every Child By Two
As the 2018 National Immunization Awareness Month comes to an end, with a focus on adult vaccines this week, I look back on the three personal milestones I have reached over the summer and thought about how much my resolve to ensure that people are aware of the need to vaccinate at every stage in life has been strengthened. As many people are aware, vaccines are critical to ensuring the health of babies, and as our children grow older they continue to need booster doses of certain vaccines as well as other vaccines to protect them against different diseases. But did you know that vaccines are recommended for people of all ages?
Every year in the U.S., thousands of adults become seriously ill, and many even die, from vaccine-preventable diseases. Even if you received vaccines as a child, your immunity can wear off over time. You may also be at risk of different diseases depending on your age, job, lifestyle, travel, or chronic health conditions. As I am now in the midst of several life changes, my perspective on vaccines for adults of all ages has also naturally shifted.
Sending my fully vaccinated son off to college this past week was my most recent life-changing milestone.
I’m proud to say that while I was making sure my son was up-to-date on all his vaccines throughout his preteen and teen years, I was also encouraging dozens of my friends and family members to protect their children from influenza (flu) and cancer-causing HPV through immunizations. More recently, as my friends and I prepared to send our kids off to college, I urged them to make sure their children received both vaccines against meningococcal disease (MenACWY and MenB), a dangerous, and sometimes deadly, disease that has taken the lives of too many young adults, which we discussed at length in last week’s blog post.
My second big milestone was becoming Fifty and Fabulous.
Turning 50 means that, in addition to my annual flu vaccine and my one-time Tdap vaccine, it’s now time to also protect myself against the shingles virus. As the big day approached I started noticing signs at the local pharmacies regarding a shortage of shingles vaccine (Shingrix®). I sent photos of the signs to my coworkers, joking that I didn’t know what I would do with myself on my birthday, knowing that I couldn’t pop into my doctor’s office or pharmacy to get vaccinated as I planned on my big 5-0 day.
In all seriousness, what does it mean to be offered protection against shingles at age 50, rather than having to wait until age 60, which was the starting age for the previously recommended shingles vaccine called Zostavax®? For starters, Zostavax®, while a good vaccine, only reduced the risk of shingles by about 50% and protected against long-term nerve damage (PHN) by about 67%. The newer vaccine, Shingrix®, which was approved by FDA in 2017, offers a 97% reduction in your chances of getting shingles and 91% reduction against long-term nerve damage. And, since the Shingrix® vaccine offers longer-lasting protection against shingles and its complications, it is now recommended by the CDC for all healthy adults age 50 and older (even if you got the Zostavax®, vaccine before).
So what is shingles and why am I among the 1 in 1,000 people in the U.S. who are at risk of getting this virus? Shingles is a painful rash of blister-like sores caused by the varicella zoster virus – the same virus that causes chickenpox. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus lies inactive in nerve tissue near your spinal cord and brain. Years later, the virus may get reactivated causing shingles to develop. The most common complication of shingles is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). People with PHN have severe pain in the areas where they had the shingles rash, after the rash clears up. The pain from PHN usually goes away in a few weeks or months; however, for some people, the pain from PHN can last for years.
Luckily, Millennials and future generations will be spared the misery of both chickenpox and shingles due to development of the chickenpox (varicella) vaccine, which was recommended for routine use in the U.S. in 1995. However, being a child of the late sixties, and one of five girls in my household, you bet I caught the chickenpox! While it is usually a mild disease in children, prior to the routine use of the chickenpox vaccine in the U.S., approximately 11,000 children were hospitalized and about 100-150 children died each year due to serious complications from chickenpox.
Back to my fifty, fabulous and fully vaccinated plan, AND my third milestone
Unfortunately, my plan to be fully vaccinated on my 50th birthday didn’t go as planned. The Shingrix® vaccine is still out of stock in both my doctor’s office and my pharmacy. But I plan to get it as soon as it becomes available again. While I know I should keep my anxiety at a minimum, I truly don’t want to end up as one of the four out of 1,000 people in my age cohort who thought she was invincible, waited to get vaccinated, and ended up with a debilitating, but preventable case of shingles. Practice what you preach definitely needs to be added to Every Child By Two’s official mission statement! Which brings me to my third exciting milestone this month – I celebrated over two decades as the Executive Director of Every Child by Two, which has by far been one of the greatest priveleges of my life (next to raising my wonderful boys).
Paying for the Shingles Vaccine Is Complicated
As a vaccine advocate, I am incredibly dismayed to know that not all adults will have as easy of a time paying for the shingles vaccine as I will. I am lucky that my current health plan will cover 100% of the cost of my vaccine, but others, including those on Medicare Part D may not be as fortunate. As I await the end of the shingles vaccine shortage, I have hardened my resolve to be an even louder advocate alongside partners such as the Adult Vaccine Access Coalition (AVAC), a group that strives to prevent the deaths of over 50,000 adults from vaccine-preventable disease (VPDs) every year in the U.S. AVAC also seeks to put an end to the enormous economic burden caused by treating adults who contract VPDs, and works to ensure fair and equitable vaccine coverage for older Americans (like me). Stay tuned for my personal shingles vaccination photo op, hopefully in the near future!
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