Vaccinations are not just for children. Older adults also need vaccinations. Protection provided by some childhood vaccines can wear off over time, and as you get older your immune system tends to weaken, putting you at higher risk of certain diseases.
In New Zealand the following vaccines on the National Immunisation Schedule are free to people aged 65 years:
- influenza (flu) vaccine
- shingles vaccine
- tetanus vaccine.
Influenza (flu) vaccine
In New Zealand the flu vaccine is free for people 65 years and over. You need the flu vaccine every year because protection from the vaccination you had the year before becomes less effective over time. Each year a new flu vaccine is developed to match the different strains of flu virus.
The new vaccine is usually available in April each year. To protect against the serious complications of the flu, you are advised to have the vaccine before the winter season when most people catch it. Read more about the flu and the flu vaccine.
Shingles is a painful, itchy skin rash. It usually appears as blisters around one side of your chest, but it can also be on your trunk, back, legs or face. It is most common in people over 70 years of age, but can happen in younger people. It is caused by the same virus (varicella zoster) that causes chickenpox.
In New Zealand, 1 dose of the shingles vaccine is funded for people aged 65 years. It is also free for people aged between 66–80 years until 31 December 2020. Read more about shingles and shingles vaccine.
Tetanus is a serious disease caused by bacteria that is usually found in soil and manure. It affects your nervous system and causes severe muscle spasms, mainly of your jaw and neck muscles. Tetanus can affect breathing and can be life threatening.
Anyone who has not had 3 tetanus-containing vaccines is at risk of getting tetanus. People over 50 years of age (particularly women) are most likely to suffer from tetanus. This is because the National Childhood Immunisation Programme with tetanus vaccine only started in 1960. Before 1960, tetanus vaccination was only routinely given to armed forces personnel.
The effect of the vaccine wears off over time so having tetanus vaccines as a child will not provide life-long cover. You need booster doses as an adult. Booster doses may also be needed after dirty cuts, grazes and wounds if it has been more than 5 years since the last booster.
Booster doses are free for adults at 65 years of age (Boostrix®). Adults who have not previously received 4 doses of tetanus-containing vaccine can get Boostrix at 45 years of age. The vaccine itself is free but you may need to pay for it to be given. Ask your doctor or nurse for more information. Read more about tetanus and tetanus vaccine.
Pneumococcal disease is caused by a bug (bacteria) called S. pneumoniae. This causes serious illnesses such as pneumonia (lung infection), meningitis and septicaemia (infection of the blood). Pneumonia can cause hospitalisation and even death, especially in people 65 years or older.
Getting the pneumococcal vaccine is one of the ways to protect against pneumococcal disease. The vaccine may not always prevent pneumonia but it can lessen the illness and the need to go to hospital. Pneumococcal vaccine is not free for all older adults in New Zealand – you may need to pay for it. People aged over 65 years only need one dose. Read more about pneumococcal disease and pneumococcal vaccine.
- Pneumococcal vaccine for adults: Pneumovax23 BPAC, NZ, 2011
- The diagnosis and management of herpes zoster and its complications BPAC, NZ, 2014
- Zoster (herpes zoster/shingles) Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
- Influenza Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
- Pneumococcal disease Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
- Tetanus Immunisation Handbook, NZ, 2020
Angela is a pharmacist in the Quality Use of Medicines Team at Waitematā District Health Board. She has experience in hospital pharmacy in New Zealand and in the UK, and was previously a medical writer for Elsevier in The Netherlands. Angela is interested in promoting the safe use of medicines, particularly high-risk medicines.