Opinion

Vaccine Changes Could Put Senior Health at Risk

As we get older, we are more susceptible to illness. This includes dangerous diseases such as influenza, which can eventually lead to pneumonia, a deadly illness for older adults.

However, one vaccine that prevents pneumonia is in danger of becoming less available to older Americans.

Every year in the United States, nearly 1 million people get pneumonia. Many of those people are 65 and older, and many times, pneumonia is a complication of influenza. About 18,000 older adults die from pneumonia annually, and in fact, flu and pneumonia were the eighth-leading cause of death in the United States in 2015. Pneumonia can also be responsible for serious complications that may be permanent, including heart issues, hearing loss, seizures, blindness and paralysis.

Since 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that adults age 65 and older receive both of the available pneumococcal pneumonia vaccinations. These shots cover the most common strains of the virus that can have such devastating results. This important decision has led to an increased pneumococcal vaccine uptake by older adults and therefore, less disease in our communities.

But, in the coming months, about a dozen medical experts who serve on a subcommittee of the CDC are poised to make a decision about whether to continue to have the current pneumococcal vaccination recommendation stand.

That may not seem like such a big deal, but in fact, vaccines are incredibly important for all of us, but especially older adults, as a frontline protection against a potentially deadly disease.

As an advocate for the health and nutrition needs of older Americans, I’ve long been in support of ensuring that all critical vaccinations are available for this population. My organization, the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs, represents providers who serve meals to hundreds of thousands of older adults every day.

NANASP approaches wellness from a holistic perspective. Our members make sure the older adults they serve are healthy beyond providing them with nutritious meals — they perform safety checks on seniors, give them rides to the doctor and to senior centers, and provide education on nutrition, health and well-being.

NANASP’s members also encourage the older adults they serve to get vaccinated, as vaccinations are a big part of staying healthy. This is particularly true for older adults who live and socialize in group settings, such as in senior housing and at senior centers.

So, the potential change in this recommendation may mean that those older adults we serve through my organization — and the millions of seniors we all love and care for — are at risk of getting unnecessarily sick.

Since the recommendation went into effect, we have made strides in making sure older adults know about the vaccine, know to talk to their doctors about it, and know to protect themselves by being immunized.

I don’t know what the true motivation for making this change is — but all of us, whether we are an older American, or know and love one, or plan to be one someday, should be alarmed.

It is my hope that this CDC subcommittee, the Advisory Council on Immunization Practices, continues to maintain the current recommendation for older Americans to be fully immunized against pneumococcal pneumonia. That way, we can all continue to make sure not one more life is unnecessarily lost to this disease.

 

Bob Blancato is the executive director of the National Association of Nutrition and Aging Services Programs.

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