Vaccines Medical Director, GSK UK
Older adults are more at risk of potentially dangerous diseases such as influenza and pneumonia, but with the right vaccines and information, we can avoid these preventable illnesses.
As we get older, our immune systems become less able to fight off infection, making vaccines an essential healthy ageing strategy.
But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are concerned about the risk of visiting healthcare settings such as GP surgeries, and have avoided their injections or have had challenges in arranging appointments.
Philip Cruz, Vaccines Medical Director at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in the UK, said: “With the current pandemic and the upcoming flu season, preventative health is more important than ever. Vaccines can afford protection against preventable and potentially dangerous diseases, like influenza and pneumonia.
“The seriousness of these conditions can range. If you think about flu, it might just be mild symptoms, such a headache and a cough. However, there are some cases which are more serious and could even warrant hospitalisation.”
Vaccines are great but vaccination is better
The UK currently runs vaccination programmes on the NHS for older adults, including protection against flu, pneumonia and shingles. However, offering the right jab in itself isn’t enough to protect the population – uptake is vitally important.
“Vaccines are great, but vaccination is better,” said Cruz, “if a vaccine is just sitting on a shelf, it can’t offer any protection.”
“If people get themselves vaccinated, their immune system will build antibodies so that they are ready to combat infection if they are exposed to a virus or bacteria.”
Now is not the time to miss scheduled appointments and to get a vaccine-preventable illness, not least because of the burden it will put on the healthcare system during the pandemic.
There is a perception, he went on, that immunisation is “only for children,” but this could not be further than the truth. Certain vaccines are recommended for teenagers, pregnant women, health workers, people with underlying health conditions and older people, making protection from preventable disease a life-long affair.
Cruz explained: “There is a lot that goes into deciding which group should have which vaccine. This is brought about by the epidemiology – which age or risk groups we see the highest number of cases in – and other factors.”
Older people are at a higher risk of developing serious forms of several preventable conditions, including flu, pneumonia, and shingles.
“There is such a thing as an age-related decline in immunity. As we grow older our immune systems are no longer in tip top shape. Vaccination is a supplementation of that protection,” he said.
What’s more, older people are more likely to be living with more medical conditions than their younger counterparts.
“If someone has what we call comorbidities – more than one disorder – including heart, kidney, liver or lung disease, they are more susceptible to getting these preventable diseases. It gives them even more reason to be vaccinated.”
Attending appointments is essential
Cruz says no one should be afraid of getting the vaccinations they need to stay healthy this winter.
“The NHS is equipped to administer the programmes. It might mean going to your GP or your pharmacy, but safety measures designed to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19, are in place,” he added.
“Now is not the time to miss scheduled appointments and to get a vaccine-preventable illness, not least because of the burden it will put on the healthcare system during the pandemic.”
Trusted information is the key to overcoming misinformation, believes Cruz, who encouraged older people to speak to their healthcare professional.
“We need to keep channels of information open. GPs, pharmacists, midwives and nurses, as well as the NHS Choices website, are all valid sources of information.”
“Ultimately, vaccination is a key part of healthy ageing, and everyone needs trusted information to be able to effectively protect their health,” he concluded.
NP-GB-ABX-JRNA-200003. November 2020.