Vaccines are one of the greatest success stories in modern medicine and have protected millions of Americans, including older adults, from disabling and deadly infectious diseases. And the latest news is especially hopeful for older adults. A newly approved vaccine will bring significantly more protection against shingles, also known as herpes zoster, a painful, itchy rash that develops on one side of the body and can last for three to five weeks—with pain often lingering far longer. One in three Americans will develop shingles in their lifetime, with the risk increasing to half of adults over 85, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Last month the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) made three major recommendations for the new shingles vaccine, which will likely be formalized in early in 2018 (after which the new vaccine will become available). ACIP advises that the new two-dose shingles vaccine be recommended for people starting at age 50, a full 10 years earlier than the CDC’s advice for the previous vaccine. The committee also notes that the new vaccine should receive preference over the previous one, and those who have already gotten the previous one should also get the new.
The news serves as a good reminder for Medicare beneficiaries to check their vaccination status. From now through December 7, Medicare Open Enrollment allows beneficiaries to review, compare, and enroll in the Medicare health and drug plans that work best for them. Older adults can also use this time to work with their doctors to make sure they are up to date on all of their vaccinations.
Older adults on Medicare have at least one opportunity every year to discuss vaccinations with their doctors. For many, the first opportunity comes during the “Welcome to Medicare” visit, which is a one-time examination available to all new Medicare enrollees. A second opportunity is the annual wellness visit that is available to anyone who has had Medicare Part B coverage for at least 12 months. No matter the type of visit, those on Medicare should use these visits as an opportunity to discuss with their doctors which vaccines they’ve had and which vaccines they need.
The importance of this conversation cannot be underestimated. Adults ages 65 years and older are at greatest risk of serious complications from infectious diseases such as influenza and pneumonia, including death. The immune system grows weaker as we age, making it more challenging to fight off infections; having one or more chronic conditions can further complicate recovery.
Fortunately, Medicare Part B covers most recommended vaccines, including those for the flu, pneumonia, and Hepatitis B. Medicare Part D covers all available vaccines not covered by Part B, including the shingles vaccine.
To learn more about the importance of vaccinations in older adults, take a look at the materials that have been developed as part of Our Best Shot, a joint campaign of the Alliance for Aging Research and the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. The campaign includes a short educational video about the importance of vaccines in older adults, a fact sheet that outlines preventive services—including vaccines—available through Medicare, and a fact sheet that combats misconceptions about vaccines and empowers older adults to share the “truth” about their importance.
Unfortunately, in recent years, misinformation and rumors about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines have been spreading—creating fear and doubt that has had serious consequences. Older adults can play an influential role during Medicare Open Enrollment by checking to make sure their own vaccinations are up to date. They can also inject a dose of reality into the myth-driven debates around vaccines and lead their families by example.
Sandy Markwood is CEO of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging in Washington, D.C.
Susan Peschin, MHS, is president and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research in Washington, D.C.