February topic: Vaccinations
Recently, there has been a measles outbreak and recent numbers reflect that the flu season has hit the elderly very hard. Vaccinations are an extremely important tool in preventing illness.
Vaccines have saved millions of lives.
What Is a Vaccine?
Vaccines take advantage of your body’s natural ability to learn how to combat many disease-causing germs, or microbes, that attack it. What’s more, your body “remembers” how to protect itself from the microbes it has encountered before. Collectively, the parts of your body that remember and repel microbes are called the immune system. Without the immune system, the simplest illness could quickly turn deadly.
Traditional vaccines contain either parts of microbes or whole microbes that have been killed or weakened so that they don’t cause disease. When your immune system confronts these harmless versions of the germs, it quickly clears them from your body. In other words, vaccines trick your immune system to teach your body important lessons about how to defeat its opponents.
How Vaccines Mimic Infection
Vaccines teach the immune system by mimicking a natural infection.
Bad flu season
Flu-related hospitalizations of the elderly are the highest since the government started tracking that statistic nine years ago. About 198 out of every 100,000 people 65 and older have been hospitalized with flu-related illness this flu season. That's roughly 86,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's the highest level seen since the government started tracking the statistic in the 2005-2006 flu season. The previous record was 183 per 100,000, during the flu season two years ago.
Among infectious diseases, flu is considered one of the nation's leading killers. On average, about 24,000 Americans die each flu season, according to the CDC.
The CDC doesn't do a national count of adult flu deaths. But a tally of deaths from 122 U.S. cities indicated that 9 percent of all deaths last week were attributed to flu and pneumonia. That's not a record, but it's higher than what's been seen in the thick of most recent flu seasons. It reached 10 percent two winters ago.
Why this year’s vaccine is not as effective as years past
This year, the flu vaccine is not built for the H3N2 strain, which is the one that's spreading most widely. Overall, the flu vaccine is only 23 percent effective this winter, CDC officials said recently.That's one of the worst performances in the last decade, since U.S. health officials started routinely tracking how well vaccines work. In the best flu seasons, the vaccines were 50 to 60 percent effective.
Because the scientists determine what to put in the vaccine months, if not years, in advance, determining which strains will dominate is an educated guess. This year, the scientists were not very good at guessing. Also, the pharmaceutical companies must produce millions of doses, so manufacturing begins months in advance of the flu season.
The good news is flu season seems to have peaked, at least for much of the country, officials say.Nationally, we're on the decline. But we're still going up in some areas. Flu seems is receding in the Southeast and Southwest, for example. But it's surging in New England and the West Coast.
What other vaccines are good for elderly to get?
Shingles – what does it protect against and why should elderly consider it?
Shingles is a painful skin rash that is caused by a virus. Most common in older adults and people with weak immune systems, shingles occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox starts up again in your body. After you get chickenpox, the virus remains dormant in the nerve roots of your body. In some people, it remains dormant forever. In others, the virus “wakes up.” Anyone who has had chickenpox may get shingles later in life. A vaccine is available to prevent shingles, which is recommended for adults ages 60 and older, whether you’ve had shingles before or not. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the vaccine.