Vaccines

The inconvenient truth of vaccine refusal

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

The development of vaccines for many once-fatal illnesses has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children in the United States. While some parents may have concerns about the side effects of a vaccine, the decision not to vaccinate a child extends the risk of illness to the larger community.

Don’t shrug off shingles

Matthew Solan
Matthew Solan, Executive Editor, Harvard Men's Health Watch

Shingles, an itchy and painful rash that occurs when the chickenpox virus reactivates in your body, shouldn’t be written off as just a nuisance. If it’s not treated promptly with an antiviral drug, it can cause a host of serious long-term complications. Fortunately, there’s a vaccine that can slash your risk of shingles by half, and another, even more effective one in the pipeline.

Protection from the TdaP vaccine doesn’t last very long

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Unfortunately, according to a recently published study, the TdaP vaccine is less effective than previously thought. It could even be a factor in the recent California outbreaks. Other versions of the vaccine offer more protection, but also have more side effects. Protecting kids from pertussis might require a substantial public health effort to get just right.

Do statins interfere with the flu vaccine?

John Ross, MD, FIDSA
John Ross, MD, FIDSA, Contributing Editor

The statin drugs are very effective at reducing LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and may also reduce inflammation throughout the body. Both of these properties can reduce the risk of cardiovascular problems. At the same time, research — some of it conflicting — suggests that statins may also affect the body’s immune system. In particular, they may dampen the response to vaccines.

Kids and flu shots: Two common myths

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

“Last time I got the flu shot, it actually made me sick!” “My kids are perfectly healthy. They’ll be fine.” You’ve probably heard a version of these two before. These flu shot myths are so persistent that they prevent countless numbers of people from getting vaccinated each year. We’ve debunked these claims here to help you make your flu shot decision based on facts — not myths.

Get the flu vaccine, reduce your risk of death

John Ross, MD, FIDSA
John Ross, MD, FIDSA, Contributing Editor

Last year’s flu vaccine gave a lackluster performance — it prevented the flu in less than a quarter of the people who got immunized. Flu vaccines are created to protect against the three or four viruses most likely to cause the flu in a given season. Some years, the predictions are better than others. Scientists are now working on a universal flu vaccine that may make the guesswork unnecessary. And there are improved vaccines available for people with egg allergies, which would otherwise prohibit them from getting standard flu shots. The flu vaccine may be imperfect, but it’s still worth getting. It does lower your chances of getting the flu, and it reduces the risk for heart attack, stroke, and death as well.

Why Public Schools Should Require the HPV Vaccine

Claire McCarthy, MD
Claire McCarthy, MD, Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publications

Rhode Island recently made it a requirement for all children who attend a public school to be vaccinated with HPV. Not every one likes this is new requirement. Those who oppose the change point out that you catch HPV through sex, unlike infections like measles or whooping cough that you can catch if someone in the classroom has it and coughs on you. Why, they say, should the HPV vaccine be required for school? Because it could save lives, that’s why.

Experimental new vaccine may help in the fight against shingles

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

If you had chickenpox as a child, the virus that caused it can re-emerge later in life —to cause shingles. This condition, also known as herpes zoster, consists of a rash on one side of the body, often accompanied by excruciating pain. The rash typically goes away in about a month, but in some people, the pain lingers for weeks, months, or even years. This chronic pain is called post-herpetic neuralgia. A vaccine called Zostavax can help prevent shingles. It is recommended for people ages 60 and older. The vaccine is produced by treating live varicella-zoster virus in ways that weaken it but don’t kill it. Though Zostavax works reasonably well to prevent shingles, it tends to be less effective in older people. And because it contains live virus, it should not be given to people with weak immune systems. An experimental new vaccine which goes by the name HZ/su, just described in The New England Journal of Medicine, seems to get around these problems. In the international Zoster Efficacy Study in Adults 50 Years of Age or Older (ZOE-50), the new vaccine appeared to be effective even in older people. It may, however, cause more pain at the injection site and also more frequent muscle pain and headache than the current vaccine. Even if the new vaccine performs well in future tests, FDA approval would still be a few years away.

Are you 65 or older? Get two vaccinations against pneumonia

Gregory Curfman, MD
Gregory Curfman, MD, Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Publications

If you or a loved one is age 65 or older, getting vaccinated against pneumonia is a good idea — so good that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now recommends that everyone in this age group get vaccinated against pneumonia twice. For the past 30 years or so, the CDC has recommended that everyone ages 65 and older get a single-dose pneumonia vaccine called pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine 23 (PPSV23). This vaccine is also recommended for those between the ages of two and 64 who are at high risk of getting pneumonia. Findings from a large clinical trial called CAPiTA, published today in The New England Journal of Medicine, show that a second vaccine, called pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 13 (PCV13), provides further protection against pneumonia and related infections. When it comes to preventing pneumonia, the bottom line for older individuals is clear: Get vaccinated twice.

This year’s flu vaccine “disappointing” against main flu virus

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Some years the flu vaccine works quite well. Other years it doesn’t. It has done a particularly poor job this year against the main flu virus. The CDC reported yesterday that this year’s flu vaccine has been just 18% effective. The estimate for children is even lower. And it looks like the nasal spray vaccine may not have worked at all among children. One reason for this year’s mismatch between virus and vaccine is that experts must decide months in advance which of the hundreds of flu viruses to include in the vaccine. What became the dominant flu virus this year, a new strain of H3N2 influenza A, wasn’t around last year when experts were determining this year’s vaccine.