Infectious diseases, including flu and pneumonia, remain a big killer in older age-groups, in spite of modern antibiotics.
Even if a disease isn’t normally fatal, like shingles, it can still cause significant pain for as long as a year.
Uptake of the shingles vaccination has fallen, however, and public health officials are always keen to get more people to have their flu and pneumonia jabs.
After all, why risk catching a potentially deadly or painful disease, if you can avoid it?
What is shingles?
Shingles is a very painful infection of a nerve and the area of skin around it, caused by the herpes varicella-zoster virus, which also causes chickenpox. Around a third of people will get shingles in their lifetime, including half of all over-65s.
Following a chickenpox infection, the virus can lie dormant in the body and may reappear as shingles. You can have shingles more than once, and though the vast majority of the time it isn’t a serious threat, the illness is fatal for around one in 1,000 over-70s who develop it.
The shingles vaccine is given as a single injection at any time of the year, and reduces the risk of developing the illness. Those unlucky enough to still get it are likely to have milder symptoms, which last for a shorter time.
Fall in uptake
Uptake of the shingles jab fell from 61.8% in 2013/14, to 54.9% in 2015/16, and the International Longevity Centre UK (ILC-UK), a think tank which looks at our ageing society, says this may be because people have only really been thinking about flu vaccinations, and perhaps don’t even know about the shingles jab.
Alternatively, the drop may be down to GP surgery notification policies, says ILC-UK policy and public affairs officer, David Eaton.
“GP practices have different ways of encouraging people to come in and get their jabs,” says Eaton. “Some are really on the ball with texts and calls to notify people, and others are just catching up with that, so it’s a bit of a postcode lottery.
“Shingles may not cause a huge number of fatalities, but in terms of reducing quality of life, it really can impact people heavily. You can prevent the spread with vaccines, and they’re very effective for stopping shingles flaring up in the first place.”
Public Health England (PHE) says it’s working closely with health professionals to raise awareness of the shingles vaccine programme, and considering a range of approaches to simplify who’s eligible. Currently the rules, which are the same across all UK countries, are complex – from September 2016, the vaccine was available to people aged 70 and, as a catch-up, those aged 78. In addition, anyone who was eligible for immunisation in the previous three years but missed out, remains eligible until their 80th birthday.
But other people in their 70s aren’t necessarily eligible.
PHE immunisation consultant Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam says it’s important GPs continue to offer the shingles vaccine to eligible patients, “in order to prevent the significant burden of disease associated with shingles among older adults.”
There are several myths about vaccines as well, notes Eaton, including that you can get the disease from its vaccine, or that they make you feel unwell.
“You can’t get the disease from having the vaccine – that’s one of the biggest myths we have to dispel,” he stresses. “Your arm might be a little sore for a day, and 99% of the time, that’s the worst side-effect you’ll get. There are very few cases of people feeling unwell after having a vaccination.
“Vaccines aren’t just for kids – there is a real reason why we should be giving them to people throughout their lives. It’s the one proven, effective way we’ve got of preventing diseases.”
Other grown-up vaccines
As well as shingles, many strains of flu and pneumonia are preventable through vaccinations.
Nobody wants to get flu, but as well as being unpleasant, it can have serious complications in the over-65s, as well as pregnant women, and children and adults with an underlying health condition or weakened immune system. People in these groups are more likely to develop complications, including pneumonia. They’re widely available privately, including at a number of high street pharmacies.
The pneumococcal vaccine, also known as the pneumonia jab, protects against serious and potentially fatal pneumococcal infections caused by the streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. These infections can lead to pneumonia, sepsis and meningitis, and at worst, cause permanent brain damage or death. Over-65s only need a single pneumococcal vaccination, which will protect them for life. Babies are also given the jabs, plus adults with long-term health conditions.
Other at-risk groups
Some other vaccines aren’t routinely available, but are given to adults in certain at-risk groups, such as whooping cough vaccines for pregnant women, healthcare workers, and people with long-term health conditions, and the chickenpox vaccine.