As top health and policy officials gather in Washington this week for the World Vaccine Congress and Expo, a gap in their agenda will almost surely be the vital issue of adult vaccination – even at a time when global populations are aging rapidly. This would be a pity and a huge missed opportunity.
With older populations dominating global demographics, adult immunization could be a tremendous driver of health and wellness efforts, much as childhood vaccination was for children in the latter part of the 20th century, when youth was a dominant force. Systematic childhood immunization programs have been perhaps the greatest public health development of the past century. Notwithstanding the pseudo-scientific quackery that attributes autism to vaccinations, a truly unfounded claim, childhood vaccination programs have dramatically boosted infant survival rates and childhood health. In the past decade alone, five million deaths in low-income countries have been prevented through vaccination programs.
This unfettered story of success isn’t over yet. New global initiatives are underway.
Today, it makes great economic sense to have a similar platform for aging adults, so that they can lead healthier and more productive lives and help drive growth in their respective economies. This “aha” realization has begun to be noticed by some at the forefront of the global population aging phenomenon – such as those who attended the International Federation on Ageing global meeting in Prague last June. But we need even more awareness, which will lead to innovation and better outcomes for health and activity as we age.
When the old outnumber the young, good health becomes the “least common denominator” that is essential to success. As the over-60 population outnumbers those who are under age 14, adult immunization should be a public health priority, so that we take a “life-course approach” to vaccination, one that administers vaccination throughout all stages of life in order to prevent disease and enable healthy, active, and productive aging.
If in the 20th century we came to understand the value of immunization for children, surely today it's at least as important for aging adults. Older adults run an increased risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases like pneumonia, influenza, herpes zoster, and more. Consequently, in an aging population, rates of vaccine-preventable diseases rise and the costs to both the individual and health systems at large are exponential. Just in the U.S. alone, the CDC estimates that costs related to vaccine-preventable diseases in adults are roughly $10 billion annually.
There are over 600,000 pneumonia-related hospitalizations each year in the U.S. alone, resulting in over 24,000 deaths. Public health officials have found that vaccination against influenza and pneumococcal pneumonia are extremely effective, ranking among smoking cessation and cancer screening in successful preventative measures.
The public health need, economic value and morality all intersect to create incentives for adult immunization – and with it will come the marketplace into which further R&D will be attracted, leading to even more exciting and value-added innovation.
Just as public, private, and philanthropic leaders did an outstanding job with childhood vaccination, so, too, must we bring the same commitment, dedication, and creativity to adult and “life-course” vaccination. Regular vaccinations can keep older people healthier and more capable, freeing them up from illness and disability so that they can contribute to economic growth in a significant and necessary way.