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The big buzz word in health right now is vaccine, largely due to the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccines.

It seems like just a short time ago there was quite a bit of uncertainty about when a vaccine would be available and whether it would be safe and able to be used widely.

This uncertainty circulated despite the common knowledge that other vaccines are readily available that provide protection from a host of conditions.

“Vaccinations are a simple way to provide protections against diseases,” says Dr. Tyeese Gaines, a board certified emergency room and urgent care physician in New Jersey and New York.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many of the childhood conditions that posed major threats in the past, such as measles, mumps and rubella, as well as polio, have been all but eradicated thanks to the vaccinations that most children receive before they start school.

But there are other vaccines we should all be getting as teens and adults — yet there are disparities when it comes to who ends up receiving them.

“Like access to so many treatments and preventive measures, we know that Black women lag behind their white counterparts,” says Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative.

She points to the HPV and flu vaccine numbers as examples.

Similarly, the relationship between COVID-19 vaccines and Black women was also fractured from the beginning.

According to Blount, speaking during the vaccine ideation and development phase, “Black and Brown people will be less likely to sign up to take a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Also, at a time when there was little, if any, information available regarding vaccine access, Blount noted, “We are hearing from Black women we talk to that there is major distrust in the process.”

Fast-forward to now, when COVID-19 vaccines are available to anyone age 16 years and older, with the Pfizer vaccine now approved for use in children age 12 years and older, across the United States, Blount’s words are further substantiated by present circumstances.

Black women — and largely the Black community — are facing a major obstacle, and that obstacle is access.

There are several reasons that Black women get vaccinated less than their white counterparts.

“Black women often refuse because of a lack of information or trust in the medical system and concerns about the vaccines themselves,” said Blount.

There’s also the real issue of being uninsured or underinsured and not having money to cover the costs of an office visit or the vaccines themselves.

Blount suggests that Black women are less likely to be offered vaccines during their routine doctors’ visits. That’s why it’s so important to know what immunizations you need and when.

Here’s what you need to know about vaccines:

HPV can cause most cervical, anal, and other cancers, as well as genital warts. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects against sexually transmitted cancers in both people assigned male and people assigned female at birth.

Gaines recommends that children should get the 2-dose vaccination when they’re 11 or 12 years old.

“If a child doesn’t get it until they are 15, they may need 3 doses,” Gaines says.

However, the HPV vaccine can offer protection for everyone up to 26 years old. Gaines adds that “adults ages 27 to 45 should discuss the risks and benefits of getting the vaccine.”

Since there are several types of HPV, not all vaccines offer the same level of protection. In fact, a study published by Duke University School of Medicine suggests that these particular vaccines don’t offer the same level of protection for Black women, because they don’t always get the same types of HPV.

The American Cancer Society estimates that over 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year, and roughly 4,000 women will die of the disease.

According to research, Black women are about 30 percent more likely to develop cervical cancer and about 80 percent more likely to die from it compared with their white counterparts.

This is the time of year that the media and medical community start bracing for the upcoming influenza season.

According to the CDC, the number of Black adults who received a flu shot in the 2019–20 season was estimated at somewhere around 58 percent, which slightly falls behind the roughly 63 percent of white adults who were vaccinated that season.

This is an increase in vaccinations over the 2018-19 flu season, where the CDC estimated only about 39 percent of Black adults received the flu vaccine compared with almost 49 percent of white adults.

Despite the increase in vaccinations, the evidence still remains — Black adults are getting vaccinated at a lower rate than other ethnic groups.

Gaines says, “all adults need a seasonal flu shot, ideally 2–4 weeks before the flu season starts.” She says the immune system needs time to react to the vaccine and build up its strength.

The lack of people getting a flu shot is linked to more severe illness and higher rates of deaths due to flu in Black communities.

“Those with lung diseases, such as asthma, should prioritize getting the flu shot, as the flu can be deadly for people with those conditions,” says Gaines.

Public health professionals are urging everyone to get the vaccine this year, because flu season comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are still raging.

If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor about getting the flu vaccine to protect you and your baby.

And speaking of pregnancy, think about getting a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine before you get pregnant. Dr. Gaines says, “if a woman contracts any of these during her pregnancy, it could have detrimental effects on the health of that pregnancy.”

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The Food and Drug Administration has granted three vaccines Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

Those vaccines are:

  • Pfizer-BioNTech: two-dose vaccine, which has received an emergency use approval for use in everyone ages 12 years and older, as of May 2021
  • Moderna: two-dose vaccine
  • Johnson & Johnson (J&J): one-dose vaccine that had access temporarily halted due to concerns following adverse patient outcomes but has been clinically cleared to have its access reinstated

Key facts regarding current COVID-19 vaccines:

  • None of the vaccines are 100 percent effective, and there are known side effects. However, they offer the best protection against a SARS-CoV-2 infection, which causes COVID-19 and has the potential to be fatal.
  • Common side effects include redness, swelling, and itching at the injection site, fever, chills, fatigue, and limited appetite. Most side effects should clear within a few days to a week. If you experience severe side effects or your side effects have not cleared up within a week, make an appointment with a healthcare professional.
  • According to experts, a booster dose may be necessary in the future to help address variants of the SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Stay up to date on the latest news on the coronavirus and COVID-19 here.

There are two types of pneumococcal vaccines:

  • Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13)
  • Pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23)

The CDC provides guidelines on who should receive the pneumonia vaccine.

For PCV13, the CDC recommendations are:

  • children younger than 2 years old
  • people ages 2 to 64 years old diagnosed with certain medical conditions

For adults ages 65 years and older, the CDC recommends that they talk with their doctor to determine whether they should receive PCV13.

For PPSV23, the CDC recommendations are:

  • adults ages 65 years and older
  • people ages 2 to 64 years old diagnosed with certain medical conditions
  • people ages 19 to 64 years old who are smokers

Your doctor may give this vaccine at the same time they give your flu vaccine. Also, in certain situations, they may administer both pneumonia vaccines at the CDC’s recommended intervals.

There are two types of meningococcal vaccines that have several indications:

  • Meningococcal conjugate or MenACWY vaccine
  • Serogroup B meningococcal or MenB vaccine

“This is a vaccine that is advised for college students who live on campus, due to a higher risk of exposure for that group,” Gaines says.

“College students are 5 times more likely to contract [the] often deadly meningitis than non-college students,” she says. These illnesses are often severe and can be deadly.

However, there are other situations where this vaccine is both recommended and needed.

The CDC recommendations are:

  • MenACWY vaccine: children ages 11 to 12 years old, with a booster dose given at 16 years old; children and adults who have an increased chance for contracting the bacteria that causes meningitis
  • MenB vaccine: people ages 10 years and older who have an increased chance for contracting the bacteria that causes meningitis

Most people get a tetanus shot as a part of their childhood vaccines, according to Gaines.

“There are two forms [for adults], Td and Tdap, she says.

According to the CDC, the Td vaccine includes tetanus and diphtheria, while the Tdap vaccine contains tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis.

Gaines notes that pertussis protects against whooping cough, a condition that can be very dangerous to small babies.

After receiving the childhood vaccine, the CDC recommends that adults get a tetanus booster dose every 10 years, or sometimes sooner if exposed to cuts or animal bites, which can increase the risk for developing tetanus.

Gaines recommends the Tdap for people between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, too.

Shingles is a viral infection that affects the nerves and can cause the following symptoms:

  • shooting pain
  • tingling
  • itching
  • burning
  • rashes
  • blisters

Getting shingles may cause complications, such as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), for adults in their 60s and beyond. PHN can cause severe pain for months or years after a shingles episode.

Both shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus, varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which can lie dormant in the body for years.

The shingles vaccine is safe and easy, and it may keep you from developing shingles. The new vaccine called Shingrix, which is given in 2 doses, 2–6 months apart, has shown to be 90 percent effective.

Gaines recommends the new vaccine, even if you had the old shingles vaccine, Zostavax.

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips for how to stay current on immunizations:

  • Do your homework. Based on your health, including any chronic conditions, learn what vaccines you need and when to get them.
  • Make sure your doctor can help you keep up with the vaccines you’ve had and those you need.
  • Schedule a physical once a year. If your doctor doesn’t ask about vaccines, be sure you bring it up. Ask about recommended vaccines.
  • Keep a notebook of all your preventive and diagnostic tests, vaccinations, and other screenings.
  • Find out what vaccines you can get at your local pharmacy. Most pharmacies can give you the flu and shingles vaccines and some pharmacies are also now administering the COVID-19 vaccine. Check with pharmacies in your local area for more specific information.
  • Make sure your primary care doctor is updated about any vaccines you receive at the pharmacy or other locations.
  • If you’re traveling to another country, check with your doctor about the specific vaccines you need for that country.

This list is not inclusive of all adult vaccines, and it’s important to note that some vaccines may be specifically recommended for those who may have a higher risk for contracting specific viral or bacterial infections.

For more information about vaccines, talk with your doctor and check out the CDC’s recommended vaccine schedule.


The Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) is the first nonprofit organization founded by Black women to protect and advance the health and well-being of Black women and girls. Learn more about BWHI by going to www.bwhi.org.

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