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Immunization isn't just for kids; adults need too

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Many people think immunizations are just for kids, but that's not true. Minnesota family physicians remind patients that adults also need to stay up-to-date on their shots to prevent certain diseases, some with potentially life-threatening consequences.

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A 2010 report from the Trust for America's Health, the Infectious Diseases Society of America, and the Robert Woods Foundation found millions of American adults go without routine vaccinations each year, which leads to an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 preventable deaths, thousands of preventable illnesses and 10 billion in preventable health care costs each year.

"Not only is it important for your own health," said Christine Albrecht, M.D., a family physician at Lakewood Health System in Staples, Minnesota.

"But staying on track with vaccinations also helps prevent disease from spreading to family members and the community in general, especially infants and the elderly who are at greater risk for serious complications from infections."

Immunizations are available to protect adults from a number of communicable diseases. Not every adult needs every vaccination and it often depends on what immunizations you had as a child. Dr. Albrecht says a patient should talk with their family physician or other health care provider to find out which specific vaccinations are recommended for them.

Typically, all adults need a Td (tetanus, diphtheria) booster vaccine every 10 years for life. Tetanus is a wound infection that causes muscle paralysis and diphtheria is a bacterial infection of the upper airway that can lead to brain and heart damage. Also, since there have been more and more cases of pertussis, or "whooping cough" in adults, it is recommended that one of the adult Td boosters given between the ages of 19-64 years be replaced by a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellualar pertussis) injection.

Adults should also consider getting an influenza vaccination annually. Seasonal influenza, or the flu, is a highly contagious viral infection that usually occurs during the winter months. Vaccination is suggested for all person older than age 50, women who will be pregnant during the flu season, residents of long-term care facilities, those who live or work with high-risk persons and anyone else who would like to protect themselves from the flu.

Persons over the age of 65 also need a one-time pneumococcal polysaccharide (PPSV) vaccination to protect them from pneumococcal disease. Pneumonia is a serious lung infection that can be fatal, especially in elderly people and those with weakened immune systems. For that reason, those with diabetes or chronic heart, lung, liver or kidney disorders, also need a vaccination even if they are less than 65 years old.

Another vaccination older adults should get protects against herpes zoster or shingles. Shingles is a viral disease caused by reactivation of the chickenpox virus years after it first occurred. It leads to a painful and blistering skin rash generally on one side of the body. One dose of the vaccine is recommended for adults older than 60, regardless of whether they had a prior episode of shingles.

The meningococcal vaccine protects against meningitis, an infection of the membranes and cerebrospinal fluid surround the brain and spinal cord. Anyone who didn't have the meningitis vaccine as a child or adolescent should receive the vaccine, especially adults without a spleen, college students living in a dormitory for the first time and those who travel to countries with a high incidence of meningitis.

Women aged 26 years or younger should be immunized against human papillomavirus (HPV), the virus that causes cervical cancer. One brand of the vaccine is also being offered to males age 26 years or younger to prevent genital warts.

Other vaccinations available in adulthood include those for hepatitis A, which can spread through contaminated food, and hepatitis B which is transmitted by blood, are recommended for people in certain high risk groups.

There is also a varicella vaccination for those who haven't had chickenpox or who were born after 1980 and weren't vaccinated when they were kids. Adults should also get a measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination if they have never had the diseases or if they were born after 1956 when the MMR vaccination began and were never vaccinated as a child.

Family physicians know more education is needed. The trust for America's Health report showed that just 2 percent of adults have had the new combo shot for tetatus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) and less than 2 percent of adults aged 60 and older have received the herpes zoster vaccine.

"We all know we should eat right and exercise to keep our bodies healthy," said Dr. Albrecht.

"Getting routine immunizations should also be on the radar because they are safe, not to mention one of the easiest and most effective things a patient can do to prevent illness."

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