Vaccines have been everywhere in the news lately: There was a recent measles outbreak on the Upper East Side in New York that then spread to lower Manhattan, as well as a measles outbreak in Seattle that was traced to a patient who attended a Kings of Leon concert on March 28. A recent study from Emory University also blew up headlines after it was discovered that the number of California parents vaccinating their children has been dropping since 2008. The anti-vaccine bandwagon also gained a celebrity fan in Kristin Cavallari, who recently announced she doesn't plan to vaccinate any of her children because she believes they cause autism.
The discussion on vaccines tends to revolve around children, but there's one important piece missing from the national debate: adult vaccines. And a lot of adults aren't getting vaccinated. For example, a 2012 study showed that with the exception of the flu shot, adult vaccination rates for most recommended vaccines remain low. A 2008 survey of 7,000 Americans by the CDC found that the flu shot is the only recommended vaccine that adults can name. It also reported that only 2 percent of adults had been vaccinated for pertussis, even though pertussis rates among adolescents and adults have been rising in recent years.
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So why aren't adults getting vaccinated? Contrary to the popular narrative, most people aren't foregoing vaccines out of religious or personal beliefs. They simply don't know they should be getting their shots.
Because adult vaccines need to be specifically tailored to patients based on lifestyle, age, any potential medical conditions they have (such as pregnancy), and other factors (such as what vaccines they may have missed as a kid or teenager), there's no one-size-fits-all recommendation, says Carolyn Bridges, M.D., associate director of adult immunizations at the CDC. Consequently, patients often don't know what to ask their doctors for.
It's also possible doctors aren't talking to their adult patients about vaccines the way they do to their adolescent patients. "Ideally vaccine needs should be assessed at all provider visits," Bridges says. "Providers should then recommend needed vaccines and either vaccinate or refer out for vaccination if their practice does not carry the needed vaccine." Still, when asked, patients want their providers to simply tell them what's recommended, according to Bridges.
While every patient's needs will be different, vaccines are an important preventive health measure. Some commonly recommended adult vaccines include the flu shot, tdap (to protect against tetanus), HPV vaccine (for both men and women), and, for those 60 or older, shingles shot. Not sure what vaccines you need? A good place to start is the CDC's quiz for adolescents and adults.
Ultimately, a simple way to start the conversation with your doctor is by framing it as an effort to stay healthy and prevent illness, Bridges says. "As part of your efforts to stay healthy, ask your doctor, 'What vaccines are recommended for me?'"