En español | If you were born before the mid-1950s, you probably remember children in your town left crippled by polio or deaf from meningitis. These diseases have now become distant memories, but as COVID-19 sweeps the world it brings back painful reminders of summers spent hiding indoors from invisible — but deadly — viruses.
"So many of these diseases — mumps, measles, chicken pox — were all seen as rites of passage for children to get, but for every child who got sick, one would die and another would develop lifelong complications,” says René Najera, an epidemiologist and editor of The History of Vaccines, a website of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. “The impact of vaccines in terms of saving lives and preserving health for everyone, especially the boomer generation, is staggering and underappreciated,” he adds.
Case in point: Before the polio vaccine became available, in 1955, there were more than 13,000 cases of paralytic polio in the United States every year. (Spread largely through swimming pools, the disease could also be asymptomatic in thousands of other children.) By 1960 cases had dropped to 2,525, and down to 61 in 1965. “Thousands of boomers were spared the disease and its devastating consequences,” Najera says.
Vaccines have not only made a difference for those afflicted by childhood diseases; rather, they save the lives of older adults of this generation, as well. Of particular significance is the influenza vaccine, which was first approved for civilians in 1946 — also the first year of the baby boom that gave a generation its nickname.
Experts say the vaccine saves, in some seasons, tens of thousands of older lives while preventing even more hospitalizations. According to a study presented at the Infectious Diseases Society of America's 2019 annual meeting, adults older than 65 who got the vaccine reduced their risk of ending up in the intensive care unit by 28 percent and lowered their risk of needing a ventilator by 46 percent.
But the shot could use some better PR among skeptical folks in their 60s and 70s, since its effectiveness can vary from season to season and from flu strain to flu strain. During the 2018–19 flu season, almost a third of people over 65 skipped the shot entirely.
Growing awareness of the high-dose flu vaccine Fluzone, which was approved for use 10 years ago for older adults in particular, could help bridge the gulf between expectations and reality. The vaccine, says L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer at Immunize.org, helps compensate for the “double whammy” the elderly face from influenza. “Not only are they more susceptible to flu complications if they do get sick, but their bodies don't respond as robustly to the flu vaccine when they get inoculated,” he explains. The higher dose contains four times the antigens of the regular shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other adult vaccines that fewer people are taking advantage of than experts would like are the pneumococcal vaccine, first licensed in 1977, which wards off the most common flu complication for the elderly, and the newer shingles vaccine — a rock star of effectiveness that's especially important to boomers, who more than likely had chicken pox as kids.
The first Shingles vaccine, Zostavax, was approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Adminstration (FDA) in 2006, about the time the boomers facing retirement age really started to need one, as their aging immune systems became more likely to allow the chickenpox virus to reactivate as a painful blistering rash, with the potential for serious nerve pain. But although Zostavax was only 50 percent effective at fighting shingles, a vaccine that is over 90 percent effective emerged in 2017: Shingrix. “It's like the chickenpox vaccine on steroids, and the hope is it'll keep the virus at bay for another 30 to 40 years,” Najera says.
Now the world waits for a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine — which is especially critical to a population of people 65 and older who've represented eight out of 10 deaths during the pandemic. But experts say that with this inoculation, as with others, expectations may need to be managed. “It may be 50 percent effective for moderate to severe diseases, just like the flu, and last for a couple years, if not a little longer” says Paul Offit, M.D., director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
In the meantime, it's important to make sure you're up to date on all your needed vaccines, Tan stresses. “You don't want to get any of these diseases and end up in the hospital at the same time COVID-19 is raging around you,” he says. Our guide to every vaccine you need after 50 can help you make sure you're up to date — and keep you, and your generation, healthier for the long haul.