Preventable Diseases

Over the last century, vaccines have changed the face of healthcare and saved countless lives. They’ve proven safe and effective. However, microorganisms that cause vaccine-preventable disease and death continue to pose a health risk to unprotected adults. In fact the CDC estimates that vaccinations could save more than 50,000 adult lives annually in the U.S.

As a result, it’s vital to follow the recommendations of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which issued an updated recommended immunization schedule for adults in February 2012. You might benefit from an initial vaccine, booster shots or the availability of newer types of vaccines. As always, check with your health care provider to better understand your needs and options.

Here’s what you need to know to avoid these preventable adult conditions:

Diphtheria: A respiratory disease that’s caused by bacteria, diphtheria results in a sore throat and low-grade fever. It can eventually lead to airway obstruction, coma and death. It is spread by coughing and sneezing. Tdap, Td, DTaP or DT (the latter two are given to children under age 7) vaccines are highly effective in preventing diphtheria. Adults require a Td booster shot every 10 years. If you never received the initial 3-shot series you should receive the diphtheria vaccination.

Hepatitis A: Those infected by the hepatitis A virus may display jaundice (yellow skin or eyes), fatigue, stomach aches, loss of appetite and nausea. The liver disease is typically spread through fecal-oral contact and less frequently by swallowing food or water that contains the virus. The CDC recommends Hepatitis A vaccine for those who live in a community with high rates of Hepatitis A; men who have sex with other men; hospital workers; those who use street drugs or travel to countries with high rates of the disease. It is worth getting a blood test to see if you already have immunity to the vaccine before getting unnecessarily exposed to the vaccine.

Hepatitis B: Hepatitis B is a disease of the liver with a range of manifestations. In most cases, people who contract hepatitis B are able to clear the virus from their system. However, in a significant number of people hepatitis B becomes a chronic disease that can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure. Signs of disease caused by hepatitis B may yellow skin or eyes, tiredness, stomach ache, loss of appetite, nausea, or joint pain. In some cases, hepatitis B can lead to liver cancer. Those infected with hepatitis B at a young age are more likely to develop liver cancer than those infected as adults. This is why children should be vaccinated at a very young age. Hepatitis B can be transmitted sexually, through drugs, work that involves handling human blood, and as a result of certain diseases. Adults at risk for Hepatitis B should receive three doses of the Hepatitis B vaccine. While there are treatments for hepatitis B, the treatments are not always successful.

Herpes Zoster (shingles): One-third of the adult population in the U.S. at some point develops shingles. The CDC reports that an estimated 1 million cases occur annually. About half of these cases involve men and women 60 or older. Those with certain cancers (including leukemia), HIV, or taking steroids are at greater risk. The disease, which is caused by the varicella zoster virus (the same virus that causes chickenpox) results in a painful rash that leads to blisters and scabs within 7 to 10 days. Shingles usually lasts 2 to 4 weeks. During this time, fever, headache, chills and upset stomach are common. In rare cases, shingles can lead to pneumonia, hearing problems, blindness, brain inflammation (encephalitis) or death. The zoster vaccine is recommended by the ACIP to reduce the risk of shingles and associated pain in people age 60 years and older. Those with a weakened immune system, undergoing cancer treatment and women who are pregnant should avoid the vaccine.

Human papillomavirus (HPV): HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection. More than 40 different types of the HPV exist. These can infect the genital area as well as the mouth and throat. It’s also possible to get more than one type of HPV. Most people who become infected by HPV may display no signs or symptoms. However, the infection can cause genital warts and lesions that lead to cervical cancer and other types of cancers, including cancers of the vulva, vagina, penis, anus and head and neck. Two HPV vaccines are available and both vaccines are administered as shots and given in three doses. Ideally women should get vaccinated before becoming sexually active. Women over the age of 26 should be given a pap smear to screen for cervical cancer instead of the HPV vaccination, and it is advised that pregnant women avoid the HPV vaccination. It is also recommended for males younger than 26 years.

Influenza: Influenza is a very common infectious disease among adults. It can cause fever, cough, sore throat and muscle aches, and can lead to the development of pneumonia. Older and weaker individuals are at risk of death in severe cases. Flu is typically spread through coughs, sneezes and breathing. The ACIP recommends that all persons above the age of 6 months receive a flu vaccination annually. Anyone 65 or older should consider a high-dose influenza vaccine.

Measles (Rubeola): This respiratory disease results from a virus and typically grows in the cells that line the back of the throat and the lungs. Measles causes fever, runny nose, cough and a rash across the body. Complications include: ear infection, pneumonia and encephalitis. Between 1 and 2 out of 1,000 die from the disease and measles can cause miscarriage. The disease, which is highly contagious, is transmitted through coughing and sneezing. Individuals up to age 49 should receive 1 or 2 doses of the MMR vaccine and those over age 50 should receive a single dose, but only if they have not been previously vaccinated or have no evidence of natural infection. Women who are pregnant and those with conditions that affect the immune system—including cancer, HIV and low platelet counts—should consult with a doctor and avoid the vaccine.

Meningitis: Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. Although it occurs most commonly in children under age 5, individuals in a dormitory setting and individuals with weakened immune systems are at increased risk when compared to the general population. A number of different bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi can cause meningitis and vaccines are recommended for the prevention of some, but not all, of these. Signs and symptoms vary, but common symptoms include: high fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to bright light, disrupted sleep, nausea and vomiting, and lack of appetite. Different vaccines exist for different types of meningitis. Adults with risk factors who have not been vaccinated should receive one or more doses.

Mumps: The highly contagious mumps virus typically causes fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, loss of appetite and swelling of the salivary glands. These symptoms usually appear 16 to 18 days after infection. Mumps vaccine is included with the combination measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) and measles-mumps-rubella-varicella (MMRV) vaccines. According to the CDC, mumps vaccine effectiveness is estimated at 62 percent to 91 percent for one dose and 76 percent to 95 percent for two doses. Individuals up to age 49 should receive 1 or 2 doses of the MMR vaccine and those over age 50 should receive a single dose, but only if they have not been previously vaccinated or have no evidence of natural infection. Pregnant women and those with conditions that affect the immune system—including cancer, HIV and low platelet counts—should consult with a doctor and avoid the vaccine.

Pertussis: This respiratory disease—commonly known as whooping cough—is a highly contagious bacterial infection (Bordetella pertussis) that is spread through coughing and sneezing. It can cause serious illness, especially in infants too young to be vaccinated. Tdap vaccine is highly effective in fighting pertussis and will provide protection not only for the vaccinated individual but also for those around them. For this reason, adults >65 who have not previously been vaccinated and have or expect to have contact with young infants (<12 months of age) should also be vaccinated.

Pneumococcal disease: Pneumococcal disease is a group of infections caused by a type of bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus). It encompasses a number of infections, including pneumococcal pneumonia, blood infections, meningitis, and middle ear infections. Depending on which compartment of the body is affected, symptoms can range from stiff neck to mental confusion, to trouble breathing and abscesses. All adults 65 or older should receive the pneumococcal vaccine. In addition, those under age 65 with a weakened immune system and diminished resistance to infection should receive the pneumococcal vaccine. The vaccine is highly effective in people who are otherwise healthy, and is often recommended for all adults depending on their overall health.

Rubella (German Measles): The acute viral disease causes fever and rash, typically for two to three days. Although Rubella is usually mild for children and young adults, it can cause miscarriage or birth abnormalities—(including deafness, heart defects, organ damage and mental retardation) when it infects pregnant women. Individuals up to age 49 should receive 1 or 2 doses of the MMR vaccine and those over age 50 should receive a single dose, but only if they have not been previously vaccinated or have no evidence of natural infection. Women who are pregnant, those with conditions that affect the immune system—including cancer, HIV and low platelet counts—should consult with a doctor and avoid the vaccine.

Tetanus: This disease, caused by a bacterial infection that enters the body through a break in the skin, affects the central nervous system. It causes stiffness in the neck and abdomen, difficulty swallowing and the condition known as lockjaw. Left untreated, tetanus can cause severe muscle spasms and death. Tdap, Td DTaP and DT vaccines (the latter two are given to children under age 7) are highly effective in preventing tetanus. Adults require a booster shot every 10 years.

Varicella (chicken pox): A type of herpes virus, varicella-zoster virus causes a distinct skin rash and blisters that result in itchiness and severe pain. Varicella is often accompanied by a fever. It is spread through the air or through casual contact. Although relatively mild when contracted as a childhood disease (chicken pox), varicella can pose a serious health risk for adults. Among other things, it can lead susceptibility to bacterial infection of the skin, swelling of the brain and pneumonia. In addition, anyone infected with chicken pox as a child may develop shingles years later. The CDC recommends that adults lacking immunity for varicella receive 2 single doses of single antigen varicella vaccine (if not previously vaccinated) or a second dose—if they’ve receive one dose previously. Pregnant women should not receive this vaccine.