I on Beauty: Chapter 9: Illnesses You Should Worry About More than Ebola

Photo from the collection of Irene Michaels

The biggest news outlets have been reeling with Ebola horror stories for weeks now, and while this terrible virus is certainly cause for alarm in West Africa (and precaution elsewhere), the risk to North Americans currently remains quite low. Still, this current fervor provides a great opportunity to review conditions that actually do affect a significant number of American adults over 50 — and how to prevent them.

Pneumococcal disease
With “4 million illness episodes, 445,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths annually”, the Centers for Disease Control reports that more people in the United States, children and adults, die each year of this disease than of all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. The pneumococcal bacterium can lead to pneumonia, meningitis, and infections of the blood, sinuses, and middle ear. The National Foundation of Infectious Diseases reports that of those who contract an invasive form of the disease, nearly 15% will die of their illnesses. This needn’t be the case! Pneumovax and Prevnar 13 are two single-dose vaccines that protect against Streptococcus pneumonia and are covered by Medicare part B and most insurance plans. You and your health care provider can determine which of the two is more appropriate for you.

The Flu
We all know that the flu comes around each year, leaving many across the country knocked off their feet or bedridden for weeks. What you may not quite grasp is just how serious a flu strain can prove to be. Particularly for those over 65, but also for anyone struggling with pulmonary or congestive heart problems, the flu can weaken the body so severely that secondary infections can lead to death. And they do. For a brief period last year, the number of flu-related deaths past epidemic levels, according to the CDC, with 8.3% of deaths attributed to flu or pneumonia. Unsurprisingly, the hardest hit were those over age 65. While anyone over 50 is encouraged to get a flu shot for their safety, those over 65 may also consider a high-potency vaccine called Fluzone that provides even greater protection with four times the antigen of the standard vaccine. These are covered by Medicare Part B and readily available from your general physician and at drugstores like CVS and Walgreens.

An extremely painful skin rash producing itchy, sore blisters, shingles is caused by the “reactivation” of the dormant chickenpox virus. Although shingles usually only emerges once, it occasionally becomes a recurring problem. Up to one third of untreated adults over 60 experience complications, including post-herpetic neuralgia, severe pain that persists at the site of the rash for months (or even years) after the skin has cleared. Ease of transmission is also a concern. Those without previous exposure to the virus can easily come down with the immensely irritating case of chickenpox after caring for a loved one with a shingles outbreak. (The virus is spread through contact with the affected skin.) I think we all try to protect those we love, and sometimes the best way to do that is by protecting ourselves. Risk of developing this contagious illness is greatly reduced by a one-time dose of the shingles vaccine available to adults 50 and over. Check with your insurance company to find out more about your plan’s coverage.

Some seniors have medical conditions or lifestyles that put them at higher risk for certain diseases. Check with your health care provider to see if you should receive any of the following vaccines, Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis), MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Meningitis.

Beauty is the natural result of health and happiness. Consider asking your doctor about how these vaccines and others that may be of benefit to your health. Before your next appointment, take this brief quiz to get CDC recommendations: What Vaccines Do You Need?

Be happy and healthy this winter season!

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