Thirteen years after newborn Haleigh Throgmorton died of whooping cough, it’s hard to forget her or the important lesson she taught all of us: Vaccines are not just for children. They protect senior citizens, working age adults, pregnant women—and yes, vaccines for adults protect babies, too.
If Haleigh’s family had known that, they might have been able to take stronger measures to ensure their daughter’s health.
According to a story in the Houston Chronicle, the 4-week-old baby girl caught pertussis from her father, who at first thought he had a simple cold. His daughter died two weeks later.
The family, from Panhandle, north of Amarillo, had thought whooping cough was an eradicated illness. “We had no clue,” Haleigh’s mother, Jerri-Lynn Throgmorton, told the Chronicle.
Siblings are the most frequent source of whooping cough that’s passed on to babies, according to a 2015 study in the Journal Pediatrics. But adults—mothers and fathers especially, but also grandparents and other adult visitors—can infect infants who are too young to have been protected by the DTaP vaccine.
People didn’t know as much in 2003—and the Tdap vaccine, to protect pre-teens, teenagers and adults against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis wouldn’t become available for two more years. But even now, only about a third of adults 19 and older who live with a child younger than 1 has received a pertussis vaccine in the past nine years. About one in five adults overall is up to date on the whooping cough vaccine.
It’s not for lack of caring. It’s for lack of knowledge. Most adults are unaware that they’re not “past the age of vaccines.” It’s an age that has no end; almost everyone can be protected by them. And in the process, they protect the people with whom they come in contact: The babies, the children who have medical conditions that preclude vaccination, the elderly who are more vulnerable to serious complications of flu and in whom the flu vaccines are less effective than for younger adults.
No matter what your age, immunization is one of the most effective – and cost-effective – ways to save lives and prevent suffering.
As National Immunization Awareness Month gets under way, adults should realize they have their own vaccination needs. In addition to the flu vaccine, which almost everyone older than 6 months should get yearly, adults need a Tdap booster to prevent against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
People older than 60 should get a vaccine to protect against shingles. The risk of getting the disease, caused by the same virus that causes chicken pox, rises with age even in people who had chicken pox as children, and the chances of serious side effects are higher in people 60 and older, the CDC reports. In addition, people older than 65 need two vaccines against pneumococcal disease.
Other vaccine needs for adults depend on whether they received the full schedule of childhood vaccinations, or on their risks of contracting particular diseases, or upcoming events in their lives. For example, adults who are at particular risk for hepatitis B, which can result in cirrhosis or liver cancer, should get the vaccine. The many risk factors include having sexual relations with an infected person, since the disease is commonly spread through contact with bodily fluids, or having diabetes or kidney disease. The CDC provides a list of the situations that put people at higher risk for hepatits B.
You also might need additional vaccines if you are planning to travel or visit a newborn, for the baby’s protection from dangerous diseases.
Of course, even the most important vaccines aren’t right for immune-compromised patients, people with certain allergies and those with other particular health situations.
If it sounds confusing, it is. Unlike babies and young children, adults don’t tend to have immunization schedules in their personal files or at their doctor’s office. But the CDC has a questionnaire that can help. It guides you through questions about life’s stages and situations, and based on your anonymous answers, suggests vaccinations for you to discuss with your doctor.
Try it. Fighting illness starts with better knowledge.
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