Both my wife and I have received the shingles vaccine because she has seen friends and I have seen too many patients afflicted with this infection and its painful consequences. Indeed, although she is not a health professional, my wife has become a passionate educator and promoter of shingles vaccine to her friends who are 60 years of age and older. She is frustrated that she has not been persuasive enough – several friends “just did not get around to it” and then came down with serious cases of shingles, one infection involved the eye and another friend developed disabling post-shingles pain. Heed my wife’s advice: if you are 60 years of age or older get the shingles vaccine!
Childhood vaccinations were one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century, eliminating diseases like polio and smallpox in the United States. Unfortunately, it’s a different story among adults, where current immunization rates for a wide range of recommended vaccines are far too low. As a result, more than 50,000 adults in the US die each year, and thousands more suffer serious health problems, all from diseases that could be prevented by vaccines.
Take influenza (flu), for example. Less than half of all US adults receive an annual influenza vaccine, resulting in 5 to 20 percent getting the flu each year. That seemingly small number has big consequences: between 12,000 and 56,000 excess deaths annually in recent years, and more than $10 billion in direct medical expenses and more than $87 billion total costs each year.
For nearly 45 years, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) has provided education to healthcare professionals and the public on the causes, prevention, and treatment of infectious diseases to help raise awareness of the importance of vaccines across the lifespan. Additionally, NFID is a founding member of the Adult Vaccine Access Coalition—a diverse group of healthcare providers, vaccine innovators, pharmacies, public health organizations, and patient and consumer groups. Our collective view is simple: it should be as easy as possible for all adults to receive all recommended vaccines.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my work, it’s that vaccines are too important for one organization to tackle on its own—it will take a collective, national response to ensure that vaccines remain accessible and affordable to all.
Here are three ways we can help accomplish that.
First, recommended vaccines should be covered under all public and private healthcare plans. Doctors and patients need to be mindful of patients’ insurance coverage which may vary from state to state. In addition, many private insurance “benefits” may require deductibles and co-pays. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, millions of additional individuals in the US received access to vaccine coverage with no out-of-pocket cost for patients. That’s important—evidence shows that the more patients must pay for vaccines, the less likely it is that they’ll get them. Let’s expand, not reduce, the number of people who can get vaccines at no personal cost.
Second, we must maintain federal funding for public health immunization programs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides significant funding to state and local health departments to purchase vaccines, implement campaigns to increase immunization coverage, track coverage rates and gaps, and respond to vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks. Cutting that funding just isn’t smart—lives will be lost, and all the additional medical care costs will dwarf any “savings” we get from shortsighted cuts to critical programs.
Finally, with our senior citizen population booming, let’s make sure our Medicare beneficiaries get their recommended vaccines. Every Medicare patient gets a free annual checkup. It’s the perfect time for providers and patients to discuss vaccines—there’s a direct connection between a physician recommending a vaccine and patient ultimately getting one.
By taking these three simple steps, policymakers, providers, and patients can effectively work together to ensure that all adults get the vaccines they need. Because the best way to stay healthy is to prevent illness in the first place!