The reemergence of pertussis, or whooping cough, in the U.S. underscores the need for people of all ages to maintain protection against vaccine-preventable diseases, a message Project Immunize Virginia has been promoting for 17 years.
"Our mission is promoting timely immunizations across the lifespan," says Michelle Charters, the project's director.
Once confined to children and seniors, the recommended vaccines and available antidotes change constantly, and many now include immunizations for adults. For example, the flu vaccine was once confined to protecting seniors; now, shots tailored to the year's anticipated strains, are recommended annually for all over the age of six months.
Also, both pre-teens and young adults can benefit from the relatively new Gardasil vaccine for HPV (human papilloma virus). Gardasil protects against cervical cancer, and is recommended for girls ages 11 to 26. Based on clinical trial results, the recommendation has recently been extended to boys between ages 11 and 21. The vaccine is most effective when administered before the onset of sexual activity.
Though Virginia is "doing OK" with its vaccination rate, according to Charters, it's still important for all adults to keep current with immunizations, not only for their own health, but to protect others. While most vaccine-preventable diseases, such as mumps, measles and German measles (rubella), are spread by children, adults are more often the culprits in spreading whooping cough.
"A lot don't see themselves as at risk. They can have the disease without symptoms and be passing it along to vulnerable family members — infants or grandparents," she says.
There are many other reasons adults should check their immunization status and take appropriate precautions. Project Virginia's web site cautions that they may not have been immunized as children, new vaccines may have become available, or protection may have faded with age. It also warns that for adults, contracting "childhood diseases," such as mumps, can have much more serious health consequences. "It's often not the disease, but complications from it that are the most dangerous," says Charters. "Adults often have other health issues, such as diabetes or asthma."
Adults should keep an up-to-date shot record. They can track their immunization history through their doctors' records and also request the information from the state registry, Virginia Immunization Information System. The system is currently focused on recording all childhood vaccinations, but it is working towards a comprehensive record. Local health departments issue cards that allow people to maintain their own records; the departments are also a good resource for inexpensive vaccines. They're currently offering free Tdap (for pertussis) and shingles (ages 60 and over) vaccines, while supplies last.
Charters recommends that adults check with their local pharmacy for vaccines.
"They're there to help guide you with what you need. It's convenient, and most can work with your insurance company," she says. "The flu vaccine is out there now."
She urges adults to be good role models for their children and ensure they're up to date with their immunizations.
What shots do you need?
Check at the Project Immunize Virginia web site, http://www.immunizeva.org for a schedule of recommended vaccines for adults,