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Officials Urge More Adult Vaccinations

Public health officials are urging more adults to take advantage of vaccinations that could reduce illness and save lives.
Andreas Rentz
Getty Images
Public health officials are urging more adults to take advantage of vaccinations that could reduce illness and save lives.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that not enough adults are getting all the shots they need to prevent serious diseases. What's more, a new survey shows that the vast majority of adults lack awareness of vaccines and the severity of infectious diseases.

Routine immunizations during childhood "have saved hundreds of thousands of lives and have prevented millions of cases of disease," says Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC. But very few adults take advantage of vaccines that could prevent suffering and death.

Immunizations during adulthood are recommended for more than a dozen diseases (see box at left).

For example, more than one million adults get shingles every year, even though a vaccine now exists that eases the disease and even prevents it. It's approved for use by adults 60 and older. Yet only 1.9 percent of adults who qualify have received the vaccine, the CDC says.

The results are from the CDC's National Immunization Survey, presented at a press conference in Washington.

Many people don't know they're not at risk. But Dr. Michael Oxman of the University of California, San Diego, told reporters that "everyone who's had chicken pox — and basically that's everyone in this room — is at risk of shingles."

That's because the chicken pox virus can lay dormant and then reactivate decades later, causing shingles. Shingles usually appears as a blistering rash on one side of the face or torso.

Nearly everyone who gets shingles has pain. "And many people describe the shingles pain as the worst pain they've ever endured," Oxman says.

Other survey findings include:

--Only 10 percent of women age 18 to 26 have received the vaccine for human papillomavirus, which causes cervical cancer.

--Vaccination rates for flu and pneumonia are well below the 90 percent national target set for the elderly.

--Only 2.1 percent of adults 18 to 64 years old are immunized against tetanus-diphtheria-whooping cough.

"By skipping vaccination, people are leaving themselves needlessly vulnerable to significant illness, long-term suffering and even death," Schuchat says.

Flu and related cases of pneumonia kill 36,000 people annually. Wider flu immunization could prevent many of these deaths.

In addition, some 5,000 annual deaths due to pneumonia alone can be prevented with the pneumonia vaccine, says Dr. Robert Hopkins of the University of Arkansas for Medical Science in Little Rock.

Whooping cough is also on the rise in children and adults. Coughing can last for weeks or even months. The rise in the number of whooping cough cases puts vulnerable infants at risk of severe disease and even death.

A survey of public awareness released by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, revealed that most adults cannot name more than one or two diseases that are preventable by vaccines in adults. When asked about specific diseases, consumers said they were most concerned about flu, which likely reflects media attention to the disease.

To get more adults vaccinated, Schuchat says she hopes doctors and health care providers will lead the way. The CDC's survey found that many people say they would go ahead with the shots if their doctor recommended them.

"We obviously have a lot more work to do," Schuchat says. "and it involves literally rolling up our sleeves."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

United States & World Morning Edition
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
Joe Neel is NPR's deputy senior supervising editor and a correspondent on the Science Desk.