The elderly have many good reasons to get vaccinated

Elder couple holding hands in hands

The elderly should get vaccinated to decrease the risk of serious illnesses and reduced functional capacity. By keeping their vaccination coverage up to date, elderly people can lead a full life.

“Getting vaccinated is important for the elderly, because ageing weakens the immune system and resistance to disease, which increases susceptibility to illness. Infectious diseases have more serious consequences on the elderly than on younger age groups,” says Eija Lönnroos, Professor of Geriatrics at the University of Eastern Finland.

Vaccinations prevent the onset of serious diseases and reduce the risk of premature death. When illnesses and the ensuing reduction in functional capacity are avoided, elderly people can better invest in maintaining their quality of life.

“The elderly are not usually afraid of vaccinations. Many of them still remember the times when the diseases that can now be prevented with vaccinations were widespread. If you have seen the harm caused by measles and other childhood diseases, for example, vaccinations are seen as a good thing,” says Lönnroos.

What vaccinations should the elderly take?

In Finland, vaccine-induced immunity is achieved through basic vaccinations administered at child health clinics under the national vaccination programme. These basic vaccinations are supplemented by booster vaccinations. People aged over 65 should take a free diphtheria and tetanus vaccination. This is a booster vaccination repeated every ten years for people who have turned 65. People aged over 65 should also take a free annual influenza vaccination. In addition, a free pneumococcal vaccination is given to certain risk groups, such as people aged under 75 who have received a stem cell transplant or suffer from a severe kidney disease.

Vaccination against pneumococcal infections is recommended

A severe pneumococcal infection can cause pneumonia and sepsis, for example.

“The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare recommends that people who, due to their illness or medication, are at particularly great risk of a severe pneumococcal infection should take a self-paid pneumococcal vaccination,” says Lönnroos.

“Everyone aged over 75 benefits from getting a pneumococcal vaccination, but it has not yet been included in the national vaccination programme in Finland. Here in Kuopio, for example, the city administration has sent a letter to all residents aged over 50, stating that it would be good to take a pneumococcal vaccination.”

Coronavirus vaccinations are progressing

The fourth dose of the coronavirus vaccine is being administered in Finland this autumn. It was first administered to people with severe immune deficiencies, then to people aged over 70, followed by people aged 18–69 who belong to risk groups and finally to people aged 60–69 who do not belong to risk groups. Vaccination of the final group has already commenced, but vaccinations are progressing at a different pace in different locations.
The fifth dose of the coronavirus vaccine is being administered to people with severe immune deficiencies. The Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare recommends getting a fifth dose of the vaccine four to six months after the fourth dose.

From extreme caution towards normal

The strict isolation guidelines provided at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic have left many elderly people with a persistent fear of infection.

“It’s understandable that it may be difficult to let go of extreme caution. However, excessive caution can significantly reduce quality of life and functional capacity,” Lönnroos points out.

“I encourage people who are continuing to self-isolate to return towards a normal active lifestyle. Vaccinations are recommended, and a high-quality FFP2 face mask can be used for additional protection. It provides sufficient protection for attending events and meeting people.”

Self-paid shingles vaccination

Everyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of getting shingles. Chickenpox is caused by the varicella zoster virus, which remains in the body, and if your resistance to infection decreases, the virus may reactivate and cause a painful skin eruption with blisters on the body or the face. The acute stage is painful, and the pain can become chronic and substantially reduce quality of life. The chronic pain can last for months or even years.

“There is a vaccine for a fee for preventing shingles. The newest shingles vaccine available in Finland is effective and safe also for the elderly, but its high price is a drawback,” says Lönnroos.

Impact of illness on vaccines

Vaccinations are even more important if an elderly person has a serious underlying medical condition. Such a medical condition is seldom an obstacle to getting vaccinated.

“In the case of a forthcoming organ transplant or start of cancer treatment, the patient should discuss with their doctor the best time for getting vaccinated. For example, it may be necessary to get vaccinated before starting treatment.”

Other considerations

Vaccination clinics have expertise in vaccines and their possible side-effects.

“Some people may experience soreness at the injection site, but most people do not experience any side-effects, and any minor side-effects are experienced by only a small proportion of people. It is important to mention any previous allergic reactions beforehand to the person administering the vaccine,” Lönnroos says.

People in assisted living facilities can be vaccinated at home, and home nursing services administer vaccines both at home and in nursing homes. The care facility usually organises vaccinations in a centralised manner, but elderly people themselves or their close relatives can enquire when and where vaccines will be administered. Seasonal vaccinations such as the influenza vaccination are also recommended.

“Nowadays, the elderly also travel a lot. They should find out what vaccinations are required for their destination. For example, a hepatitis A vaccination is necessary for many countries,” Lönnroos points out.

Text: Leena Koskenlaakso