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Why Vaccines Should be Part of Your Respiratory Disease Prevention Strategy

Dr. Zain Chagla

Associate Professor, Medicine, McMaster University & Infectious Disease Specialist

Laura Tamblyn Watts

CEO, CanAge

Aging, a weakening immune system, plus increased exposures can leave older individuals vulnerable to many diseases. That’s why immunization is so important.

Immunization is key to disease prevention, especially for older adults. “With aging, people often have other medical conditions and comorbidities. That, along with a weakened immune system, can leave them vulnerable to serious infection and complications if they get sick,” says Dr. Zain Chagla, Associate Professor, Medicine, at McMaster University, and infectious disease specialist. A respiratory disease like the flu, pneumonia, or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can lead not only to hospitalizations, but longer-term complications like frailty and loss of functional independence. “Vaccines are an effective way to help prevent many of these diseases, their complications, and limit their spread in the community,” he says.

Though effective vaccines for pneumonia, shingles, and RSV are available and recommended for the elderly by the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), they are not funded by the public health system—at least not uniformly. “It’s staggering that a country that knows how devastating vaccine preventable illnesses can be, especially respiratory ones, is not fully covering all NACI-recommended vaccines,” says Laura Tamblyn Watts, CEO, CanAge, a seniors’ advocacy organization and creator of the Adult Vaccination in Canada – Cross Country Report Card which looks at how each of the provinces and territories are funding adult vaccination. “We have a fundamental health equity problem here. Seniors living on fixed incomes should not be forced to choose between paying for food or vaccines,” she says. That’s why CanAge is advocating for full coverage and wide availability of these three critical vaccines.

Important to catch up on routine vaccines

While getting our aging populations vaccinated against shingles and respiratory disease is important, it’s also wise for people of all ages to ensure they’re caught up on their routine vaccinations like tetanus, measles, and diphtheria, as well as the annual flu shot. “Being up to date with these other vaccines has additional benefits in preventing downstream health effects,” says Dr. Chagla. “We’re learning, for example, about the links between viral infection like the flu to conditions like cardiovascular disease, so by getting your flu shot, you not only avoid getting sick with influenza, but you may also benefit from some cardiac protection,” he says.

Innovations lead to new vaccine options

Innovations in science and technology have led to new options with greater ability to tackle the burden of disease in Canadians who have risk factors. “The RSV vaccine is one example,” says Dr. Chagla. “It took over 30 years and a lot of work to isolate the protein for creating a really good immune response, but we now have two vaccines on the market offering an addition layer of protection to those over age 60,” he says.

With such rapid development and so many new vaccines on the market, the vaccine landscape looks very different to even five years ago. “In addition to shingles and covid vaccines, we now have better influenza vaccines, updated pneumonia vaccines, and now RSV vaccines,” says Dr. Chagla. Important vaccines for younger people like the updated HPV vaccine and mpox vaccine for high-risk individuals are also coming to market, along with pipeline technologies such as inhaled vaccines and needle-free vaccines. “Our vaccine approaches are going to get much more robust and hopefully much more painless over time, so these are very important investments,” he says.

With healthcare challenges across the country, disease prevention needs to be a priority. “By getting vaccinated, people are helping to limit the healthcare system burden, minimize disease, and maximize best outcomes,” says Dr. Chagla.

Speak to your doctor to find out which vaccines you need to stay protected.

This article was made possible by the support of Pfizer Canada.

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