Consumer Reports

Adults can benefit from flu, shingles, pneumonia vaccines

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Monday, October 25, 2010; 3:41 PM

Last fall the nation seemed to be on the brink of a vaccine crisi. Production delays led to shortages of the new H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine. Surveys found that people were confused about who needed that vaccine and who needed the regular annual flu shot. The quick manufacturing process for the new vaccine led to uncertainty about its safety and effectiveness, and resurrected concerns about vaccine safety in general.

Despite all this, last year's pandemic immunization program was the largest the United States has ever seen. More important, research conducted during and after last fall's flu season suggests that the vaccine is quite safe and effective. And this year the advice is simpler because a single vaccine should protect against both the H1N1 and regular seasonal flu strains; this means that people need only one shot or nasal dose.

While the vaccine became available weeks ago, it's still not too late to get a dose: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu activity most commonly peaks in the United States in January or February.

Research continues to document the benefits of other vaccines as well, including those against two problems that particularly plague older people, pneumonia and shingles. The health-care overhaul law requires many private plans to cover all vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention starting this year, and it requires Medicaid to do so by 2013. The law also encourages Medicare to reconsider how it covers vaccines. Those are welcome developments, since immunization rates for adults lag far behind those for children.

Influenza: Simpler advice

Despite all the confusion last year, the percentage of people getting the flu vaccine actually increased. And the simplified vaccine regimen should make it easier for people to get vaccinated this coming flu season.

Instead of one vaccine targeted mainly to younger and middle-aged people (who are at most risk from the H1N1 virus) and another mainly to older people (who are most vulnerable to other flu strains), this year there will be just one vaccine for almost everyone older than 6 months.

Still, the public has very mixed views about the vaccine. For example, a new poll conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center found that only 40 percent of Americans who care for young children or work in nursing homes, hospitals and other health care environments said they would definitely get the vaccine this year, and 30 percent of the entire sample said they will definitely not get the vaccine this year.

Shingles: Underused

The vaccine against shingles - a recurrence of the chickenpox virus that can trigger rashes and nerve pain - has been recommended for people 60 and older since 2006. But only 2 to 7 percent of eligible adults have had the shot.

That's in part because Medicare has made getting the shot cumbersome by covering it as a prescription drug rather than as a medical service. So people 65 and older often have to get their doctor to write a prescription for the vaccine and then find a pharmacist who is certified to give the shot.

If you have private insurance and it covers the vaccine, you can bypass that problem by getting the shot as soon as you turn 60. For people 65 and older already on Medicare, the recently passed health-care overhaul law may eventually provide some help. Until that issue is resolved, Consumer Reports' consultants say that the benefits of the vaccine still make the hassle of getting it worthwhile, even for people already on Medicare.

Pneumonia: Doing better

About 35 percent of Americans 65 and older have not been vaccinated against the pneumococcus bacterium that causes a serious form of pneumonia, and the percentage is even higher among younger people who are at high risk because of respiratory problems or reduced immunity. But the number of people getting the shot has increased steadily over the past 12 years. That's a step in the right direction, since complications from the infection hospitalize about 175,000 people a year and kill nearly 5,000.

(c) Copyright 2010, Consumers Union of United States Inc.

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