COVID-19 Vaccines Are Vital—And So Are These

If you’ve fallen behind on any vaccines, now is the time to catch up.

When we think about vaccines, these days only one comes to mind: the COVID-19 shot.

Getting your COVID-19 vaccine is essential to help prevent severe disease, hospitalization and death—especially as highly-contagious COVID-19 variants spread throughout Canada.

The COVID-19 vaccine is a lifesaver, but it isn’t a one-stop shot to health. In addition to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, Canadians still need to keep up with other important vaccines, such as shots for the human papilloma virus (HPV), tetanus and diphtheria (Td) booster shots and the shingles vaccine. Falling behind on vaccines can have serious health outcomes. For instance, the HPV vaccines help prevent cervical cancer, one of the leading causes of cancer deaths in women worldwide. Likewise, the Td booster shots and the shingles vaccine can help protect against severe, and in some cases life-threatening, illnesses.  

(Related: How to Talk to Your Loved Ones About the COVID-19 Vaccines)

Previously, public health guidance advised delaying other shots for a few weeks post-COVID-19 vaccine, but things have changed. Now, we know COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time—or any time before or after—any other vaccine. Due to the pandemic, many people may have also experienced delayed medical appointments which can naturally impact care. So, if you’ve fallen behind on any vaccines, now is the time to catch up.

As a family physician, I stress the importance of staying up-to-date on adult vaccination schedules with all my patients. Here are some of the important vaccines for adults in Canada.

Vaccines for adults under 50

HPV vaccine

HPV vaccines help protect against certain types of human papillomavirus (HPV) which is a common sexually transmitted infection. There are different strains of HPV, but the main HPV vaccine used in Canada can prevent against the seven most common ones that cause cancers—in particular cervical, throat and anal cancer. The vaccine also helps prevent genital warts related to HPV infection.

Many people think they can only get the HPV shot in childhood or as a teen, but that’s not true; women under 45 can still get the vaccine. Men can get certain HPV shots, too, which is crucial since about one third of HPV-related cancers occur in males.

(Related: 10 HPV Myths You Need To Stop Believing Right Away

MMR vaccine

The measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is given in childhood, but some adults may need an additional booster, as Canadians born between 1970 and 1996 may have only received one dose as a child. This is particularly important if you travel internationally, attend a post-secondary school, or if you work in a health care setting. Measles, a very contagious disease, saw a worldwide increase in the number of outbreaks in 2019.

As there are different regional guidelines across the country, your local health care provider will be able to advise you as to whether you are due for an MMR vaccine.

Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine

Canada’s National Advisory Committee on Immunization recommends that all pregnant people get the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, which is given in the form of the tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Tdap) vaccine. This shot is important because newborns don’t get the vaccine until they are a couple months old, but they can receive antibodies in the womb.

It’s best to get the Tdap vaccine between 27 and 32 weeks of pregnancy—in every pregnancy—to help protect the baby after birth.

Vaccines for adults 50 and older

Shingles vaccine 

Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, the varicella-zoster virus, and the condition can be very painful. Nearly one in three Canadians has shingles in their lifetime, and the risk is higher for older adults and those who are immunocompromised. The vaccine helps prevent serious illness, which is important given how sick patients can get with shingles.

Even if you’ve had shingles in the past, or are unsure if you had the chickenpox virus as a kid, you should still get the shot. While you can still develop shingles even after being vaccinated, the shot reduces the frequency, severity and chance of post-herpetic neuralgia. Post-herpetic neuralgia, which I often call post-shingles pain syndrome, is when people can develop burning pain for weeks or months after a shingles episode.

(Related: The “Other” Virus That’s Putting Those 50+ at Risk

Pneumococcal vaccine 

Pneumococcal disease is caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. This bacteria can cause life-threatening infections throughout the body, including meningitis (in the brain) and pneumonia (in the lungs). The good news is there are two vaccines to help prevent pneumococcal disease.

The pneumococcal vaccines are recommended for everyone over the age of 65. But those with certain health conditions that put them at higher-risk may be eligible for the vaccine at an earlier age as well.

Important vaccines for adults throughout life and across all ages

Td vaccine

One shot many people forget about is the tetanus and diphtheria (Td) vaccine. It’s advised that people get the a booster dose of the Td vaccine every 10 years for the best protection.

The vaccine is highly effective at protecting against both tetanus and diphtheria, which are serious diseases that can be fatal. The two-in-one shot can also be given to people with serious cuts or wounds if their last Td vaccine was administered more than five years ago.

Flu shot

It’s important we don’t forget about our annual influenza shot—especially when we approach flu season. As we know, the flu is not just a common cold. In older adults and young children it can be deadly, which means getting your annual shot not only protects you, but those around you.

Hepatitis B vaccine 

Many adults would have received a Hepatitis B vaccine if they had consulted a health care provider before travelling abroad (often combined with Hepatitis A in TwinRix). If you have completed your Hepatitis B series, there is no need for a booster.

But, if you have not had the Hepatitis B vaccine, talk with your health care provider. Some provinces will provide this vaccine for free for adults who meet certain guidelines, like age and  medical conditions.

Dr. Naila Kassam is a Toronto-based family physician and Senior Medical Advisor at Think Research.

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