Immunisation Of The Elderly

Mature women receiving a vaccinationUse the word “immunisation/immunization”, and you will think of trips to exotic countries overseas, or the routine immunisation/immunization of children against diphtheria, mumps, polio etc. Immunisation is certainly important in these areas, but it is now becoming increasingly important to carry out immunisation of the elderly.

Tetanus is a risk to all humans of all ages, but it is often only children and young adults who receive immunisation against this ubiquitous disease. About half the victims of tetanus will die, and although it may start from any cut or puncture wound to the skin, it can be completely prevented by a vaccination that is given regularly throughout life. Many older people are keen gardeners, and it is in garden soil that the tetanus bacteria can be found, activating itself only when in a wound. They should ensure that they receive a tetanus vaccination at least once in every ten years until the age of 70.

Influenza epidemics reach everywhere every winter. Some years are worse than others, but every year brings its victims, and those in the older age range are far more susceptible to the ravages of this potentially fatal disease, than those who are younger and fitter. The influenza virus has the unfortunate ability to change its form slightly every year, so a flu shot will give protection for only one year. After the vaccination is given in autumn, you will have 80% protection (nothing in medicine is ever 100% certain) against influenza for the next year, but no protection against the common cold or other viral diseases. The side effects to the vaccine are rare, and usually include only a slight fever and muscle ache. As the vaccine is produced from eggs, those with an egg allergy should not have a flu vaccine.

Pneumonia is rare in younger people, but its incidence increases with age. Immunisation against some forms of pneumonia is now possible, and is routinely recommended when turning 65. It is particularly vital for those who have risk factors such as lung disease, heart disease, diabetes, kidney failure, reduced immunity or for those who are in nursing homes or similar institutions. The Pneumovax injection normally needs to be given only once, and is now routine at 65 years of age, but a booster after five years is given to those at high risk. It protects those who receive it from pneumonia caused by a bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae for ten years or more.  Unfortunately, there are a number of different bacteria that cause pneumonia, and although those mentioned above are the most common ones, rarer forms of pneumonia may still occur even after immunisation.

Those who are 65 years old in our modern community have a better than even chance of living until over eighty, and a reasonable chance (particularly if they are female) of living until ninety or more. They should ensure that these twenty or thirty years of their life are as healthy and active as possible. Avoiding potentially debilitating diseases such as tetanus, influenza and pneumonia by appropriate immunisation, is one way in which they can live comfortably to a ripe old age.

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(Last modified: 13th Oct 2014)

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