Adults, including seniors, must get their shots, doctors warn

March 03, 1998|By Phil Jackman | Phil Jackman,SUN STAFF

Many people past the age of reason would have trouble naming, within a decade, the last time they had an immunization shot, much less what vaccine they received and what it prevents.

In this supposedly enlightened age, it's amazing that so many of us still think a half-dozen shots and boosters pumped into arms (or wherever) by the time school age rolls around will suffice for a lifetime.

Here's a couple of quick facts to point out the folly of such thinking: Every year in the United States, 100 times more adults than children -- between 50,000 and 70,000 -- die from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Influenza epidemics that occur every one to three years in the United States kill up to 10,000 people. Meanwhile, up to 40 percent of people exposed to flu will get sick.

While there are "only" 100,000 cases of hepatitis A (inflammation of the liver) in this country each year, almost all adults, mainly immigrants, who have lived in developing countries have been infected at some time in their lives with the virus.

If these facts don't get your attention, perhaps a book, authored by physicians Paul Offit and Louis Bell, "What Every Parent Should Know About Vaccines," will. It should.

"We're both fathers and pediatricians and we've always felt that parents should be more involved in the inoculation process of their children. That's why we felt the need for this book," says Bell, like Offit a Baltimorean who holds degrees from Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Both now work at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia while teaching at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

"Physicians in the past were more paternalistic, telling people what to do. Parents followed the orders and maybe weren't fully aware of what was going on," Bell says. "It's important to have the knowledge and if the doctor doesn't provide it, where do you get it? That's where involvement comes in."

For instance, how many people are aware that within the first 18 months of life, the recommended childhood immunization schedule includes inoculations for hepatitis B, diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and pertussis, haemophilus influenza type b (Hib), poliovirus, measles-mumps-rubella and varicella?

Each is a multiple-shot series save for the latter (varicella, or chickenpox) and doesn't end by the time a child is toilet-trained. When a child is between 4 and 6, he or she needs updated shots for polio, measles-mumps-rubella and diphtheria-tetanus. Then again between ages 11 and 12, adding another hepatitis B shot to the mix.

Actually, immunization should be considered a continuing process. The book points out the shots and boosters teen-agers should receive if they were lucky enough to avoid the standard childhood diseases, and the vaccines that are a must for adults, including seniors.

Much of the text of the $12.95 paperback book is done in question-and-answer form that is easy to read and understand. Some examples:

"Q: I am 45 years old and haven't had any shots for years. What vaccines do I need?

"A: There are four vaccines that should be considered for use in all adults: hepatitis B, varicella, measles and diphtheria-tetanus." (A discussion of these vaccines follows with tips like "adults should receive booster doses of the tetanus and diphtheria vaccine every 10 years, starting at 20 to 25 years of age.)

"Q: Which adults need the influenza vaccine?

"A: All adults over 65 years of age are at risk of severe pneumonia caused by influenza and should receive the flu vaccine every year. All adults over 65 should receive the pneumococcus vaccine also."

Chapters include explanations of vaccines, how they are made, how they work, and when they are recommended for children. Several of the most common diseases are explained and discussed under the heading "Vaccines for Children Who Travel to Far-Off Lands."

The book also offers a few more facts you might not be aware of concerning infectious diseases:

One virus can make hundreds of copies of itself in as little as eight to 12 hours, and each newly created virus can do the same.

Prior to the discovery of a polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955, more than 10,000 children were partially paralyzed annually. At the same time, "German measles" caused birth defects and retardation in 20,000 newborns annually, and a disease called Pertussis ("Whooping cough") would kill 8,000 children.

Then there was diphtheria and a bacterium called Hib, which would cause meningitis in 25,000 children annually, leaving many with permanent brain damage.

Today, most of these diseases are of relatively minor concern, as a fresh batch of viruses has taken center stage. But this will remain so only if the dictates of immunization are carried out religiously, the doctors warn.

Dr. Paul Offit will discuss "What Every Parent Should Know About Vaccines" at Bibelot Bookstore in Pikesville at 2 p.m. on March 7. Dr. Louis Bell will discuss the book at the Bibelot in Timonium at 2 p.m. on April 25.

Pub Date: 3/03/98

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