Increase use of vaccines for elderly: Experts

SINGAPORE - Nothing except clean water beats vaccination in reducing infectious diseases, says the World Health Organisation. It is "one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions and prevents between two (million) and three million deaths every year".

The problem is that while vaccines are common for children, their use is not as widespread among the elderly, who need them just as much.

Dr Eddy Bresnitz, executive director for adult vaccines at Merck Vaccines, said 70,000 adults in the United States die of vaccine-preventable deaths each year, compared with 200 children.

It is an issue that Singapore also needs to look at. Medisave, for instance, can be used to pay for all childhood vaccinations. Adults can use it only for Hepatitis B. This is despite vaccines being available for pneumonia, the third leading cause of death in Singapore, shingles and flu.

Dr Mary Anne Tsao, chairman of the Tsao Foundation, which runs care services for the elderly, said: "All clinical evidence points to the efficacy of the vaccine in reducing pneumococcal pneumonia, a common cause of acute respiratory infection that leads to hospitalisation and, often, death."

Professor David Weber, professor of medicine, epidemiology and paediatrics at the University of North Carolina Hospital, said 1.6 million people die of pneumococcal disease each year.

Invasive pneumococcal disease includes pneumonia, bacteraemia - an infection of the blood - and meningitis, or an infection of the brain lining. This disease is caused by any of over 90 bacteria types. But 80 per cent of the severe form of the disease comes from just 20 types, for which there is a preventive vaccine, he said.

Dr Tsao is also in favour of the shingles vaccine for adults. University of Colorado's Professor Myron Levin, an expert on shingles, which can be extremely painful and long-lasting, said that everyone who has had chicken pox risks getting the disease.

This is because it is caused by the same varicella virus, which remains in the nervous system. When a person's system is weakened, the virus attacks.

A shingles vaccine, which has been on the market for some years, was made available in Singapore in April, the second Asian country to introduce it, after South Korea.

The vaccine is not 100 per cent effective. It protects 70 per cent of people in their 50s, and only one in three of those aged 70 years and older. But, Professor Levin said, in people who get infected after being vaccinated, the shingles is less painful.

Dr Seow Chew Swee, a senior consultant at the National Skin Centre, said it is a good vaccine to get if people can afford it. In Singapore, it retails for more than $200.

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