Take a shot, everyone


By Dr Gita Mathai
  • Published 10.01.18

We are all aware that timely immunisation prevents many childhood diseases. There are more than 15 infectious diseases - such as diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, rotavirus diarrhoea, jaundice (A and B), typhoid, chicken pox, measles, mumps, German measles, flu, cervical cancer, pneumococcal and meningococcal pneumonia - which can be prevented, or at least turned mild, with immunisation.

While our children are immunised against some, if not all, diseases, we often do not realise that immunising our old parents is necessary too. At present, life expectancy in India is around 68 years. About 8 per cent of the population falls into this age category. These seniors are at risk for many of the same diseases that affect children. Many do not have the benefit of childhood immunisation while others lose immunity to infectious diseases acquired in childhood with age. This is especially true of grandparents who share their house with grandchildren - who tend to bring home infections from school. The symptoms may be different in old people so diagnosis may be difficult and delayed.

Even mild illnesses such as the flu can lead to complications and progress rapidly to breathing difficulties and heart failure. The pain of herpes zoster can be long lasting and unbearable. Even immunity against tetanus wanes. An unattended wound can cause "lock jaw" spasms and death.

Timely boosters have to be given for these diseases. Immunisation against diphtheria and tetanus (dT) is available and has to be taken once in 10 years.

The flu vaccine has to be taken every year because the virus constantly mutates. The best time to take the shot is during the flu season, October to March. Shots are now painless and given with fine needles. The side effects of soreness and pain last barely 24 hours.

Flu is like a heavy cold with body aches and fever. It can cause dehydration, sinusitis and ear infections. It can leave older people susceptible to life-threatening pneumonia and worsen pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes, kidney disease and heart failure. The virus can affect the heart itself, causing myocarditis and pericarditis.

The pneumococcal vaccine has to be taken once after the age of 65. It is important for everyone but particularly those with asthma, emphysema and diabetes.

Herpes zoster occurs because of a reactivation of the chicken pox virus in people who had the disease decades ago as children. It is extremely painful and debilitating and can eventually lead to depression. The vaccine is available as a single dose and has few side effects.

Senior citizens (even educated ones) are not aware of the importance or necessity of protecting themselves from preventable diseases. It seems to them an unnecessary expense for an event that may never occur. This is far from the truth because if and when the disease strikes, it will mean hospitalisation, suffering and sometimes even death.

The writer is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore and author of Staying Healthy in Modern India.

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