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Make Getting Your Vaccines a Priority

The big buzz word in health right now is vaccine, thanks to the anxiously awaited COVID-19 vaccines under development.

Nobody knows when there will be a COVID-19 vaccine that can be used widely and safely. But we do know that other vaccines are readily available that can protect you from a host of diseases — right now.

“Vaccinations are a simple way to provide protections against diseases,” says Tyeese Gaines, a board certified emergency room and urgent care physician in New Jersey and New York.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, many of the childhood diseases that posed major threats in the past, such as measlesmumps and rubella, as well as polio, have been all but eradicated thanks to the vaccinations that most children are given before they start school.

But there are other vaccines we should all be getting as teens and adults — yet there are disparities when it comes to who ends up getting them.

“Like access to so many treatments and preventive measures, we know that Black women lag behind their white counterparts,” says Linda Goler Blount, president and CEO of the Black Women’s Health Imperative.

She points to the HPV and flu vaccine numbers as examples.

“Black and Brown people are less likely to sign up to take a COVID-19 vaccine when it is immediately available. We don’t know what the access issues will be, but we are hearing from the Black women we talk to that there is major distrust in the process,” Blount says.

Why the culture gaps in immunization?

There are several reasons that Black women get vaccinated less than their white counterparts.

“Black women often refuse because a lack of information or trust in the medical system and concerns about the vaccines themselves,” says Blount.

There’s also the real issue of being uninsured or underinsured and not having money to cover the costs of an office visit or the shots themselves.

Blount suggests that Black women are less likely to be offered vaccines during their routine provider visits. That’s why it’s so important to know what immunizations you need and when.

Here’s what you need to know about vaccines:

HPV vaccine

HPV can cause most cervical, anal, and other cancers, as well as genital warts. The human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine protects against sexually transmitted cancers in both males and females.

Gaines recommends that girls and boys should get the 2-dose vaccination when they’re 11 or 12 years old.

“If a child doesn’t get it until they are 15, they may need 3 doses,” Gaines says.

However, the HPV vaccination can offer protection for everyone through age 26. Gaines adds that “adults ages 27 to 45 should discuss the risks and benefits of getting the vaccine.”

Since there are several types of HPV, not all vaccines offer the same level of protection. In fact, a study from Duke University School of Medicine suggests that these particular vaccines don’t offer the same level of protection for Black women, because they don’t always get the same types of HPV.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 14,000 new cases of cervical cancer will be diagnosed this year, and roughly 4,000 women will die of the disease.

Black women are about 30 percent more likely to get cervical cancer and about 80 percent as likely to die from it as their white counterparts.

Flu shot

This is the time of year that the media and medical community start bracing for the upcoming influenza season.

According to the CDC, the number of Black adults who got a flu shot in the 2018–19 season was somewhere around 39 percentTrusted Source, which falls behind the almost 49 percent of white adults who got the flu shot that season.

Gaines says, “all adults need a seasonal flu shot, ideally 2–4 weeks before the flu season starts.” She says the immune system needs time to react to the vaccine and build up its strength.

The lack of people getting flu vaccines is linked to more severe illness and higher rates of deaths due to flu in Black communities.

“Those with lung diseases, such as asthma, should prioritize getting the flu shot, as the flu can be deadly for people with those conditions,” says Gaines.

Public health professionals are urging everyone to get the vaccine this year, because flu season comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are still raging.

If you’re pregnant, ask your doctor for a flu shot to protect you and your baby.

And speaking of pregnancy, think about getting a measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine before you get pregnant. Dr. Gaines says, “if a woman contracts any of these during her pregnancy, it could have detrimental effects on the health of that pregnancy.”

Pneumonia vaccines

It’s recommended that older adults get the pneumonia vaccine. Your doctor may give this vaccine at the same time they give your flu shot.

If you have chronic conditions, a compromised immune system, or are over 65, you should get a pneumonia vaccine every 5 years.

There are two types of pneumonia vaccines to address different types of pneumonia. Older adults should get both shots: first, the PCV13 shot, and then the PPSV23 shot a year or more later.

Meningitis vaccine

“This is a vaccine that is advised for college students who live on campus, due to a higher risk of exposure for that group,” Gaines says.

“College students are 5 times more likely to contract [the] often deadly meningitis than non-college students,” she says. These illnesses are often severe and can be deadly.

Tetanus vaccine

Most people get a tetanus shot as a part of their childhood vaccines, according to Gaines.

“There are two forms — Td and TDap. Td is just plain tetanus and TDap has pertussis in it and protects against whooping cough which can be very dangerous to small babies,” she says.

After the childhood shot, it’s recommended that adults get a tetanus booster shot every 10 years, or sometimes sooner after exposure to cuts or animal bites.

Gaines recommends the Tdap for people between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, too.

Shingles vaccines

Shingles is a viral infection that affects the nerves and can cause the following symptoms:

  • shooting pain
  • tingling
  • itching
  • burning
  • rashes
  • blisters

Getting shingles may cause complications, such as postherpetic neuralgia (PHN), for adults in their 60s and beyond. PHN can cause severe pain for months or years after a shingles episode.

Both shingles and chickenpox are caused by the same virus, the varicella-zoster virus (VZV), which can lie dormant in the body for years.

The shingles vaccine is safe and easy, and it may keep you from getting shingles. The new vaccine called Shingrix, which is given in 2 doses, 2–6 months apart, has shown to be 90 percent effectiveTrusted Source.

Gaines recommends the new vaccine, even if you had the old shingles vaccine, Zostavax.

How to keep up to date on vaccines

If you’re not sure where to start, here are some tips for how to stay current on immunizations:

  • Do your homework. Based on your health, including any chronic conditions, know what vaccines you need and when to get them.
  • Make sure you have a doctor who can help you keep up with the vaccines you’ve had and those you need.
  • Schedule a physical once a year and ask about recommended vaccines.
  • Keep a notebook of all your preventive and diagnostic tests, vaccinations, and other screenings.
  • If your doctor doesn’t ask you about your vaccines, make sure you bring it up.
  • Find out what vaccines you can get at your local pharmacy. Most pharmacies can give you the flu and shingles shots.
  • If you’re traveling to another country, check in with your provider about the specific vaccines you need for that country.