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A boost for keeping vaccine rules

A medical assistant administers a flu shot in

A medical assistant administers a flu shot in Seattle, Wash. A newer kind of flu vaccine worked a little better than traditional shots in seniors this past winter, the federal government said. Credit: AP / Ted S. Warren

Being a patient today is a vastly different experience than it was just a few years ago — and that’s both positive and negative.

On the positive side, we’re treating diseases much more effectively. We know more about ways to prevent and manage many illnesses. Patients are living longer and healthier lives. On a negative note, some of these treatments are becoming harder and harder to access — due to red tape and roadblocks throughout the health care system. This is even more true for people of color, where access to medication and preventive care is often less available — and it may be about to get harder to access critical vaccinations for older adults.

With all of our new treatments and techniques, vaccinations still remain one of the most reliable ways to combat disease. This is true for every stage of life — from infant to elderly. It’s even more true for those who are at greater risk for contracting some diseases, either because of their age or because of underlying conditions. One of the deadliest yet vaccine-preventable diseases is pneumococcal disease, which includes illnesses like pneumonia and sepsis.

In the next several months, an advisory committee at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may decide that the current pneumococcal vaccination recommendation for adults aged 65 and older no longer needs to be required. What does that mean for the average senior citizen? Your doctor might not tell you about the vaccine. You might get sick from a disease that could be prevented.

Why is this? I can’t imagine a good rationale for putting older adults at risk like this. Even more, this could be worse for older African-American patients.

It remains surprisingly true that racial disparities exist in vaccine coverage. Blacks have consistently had lower immunization rates, often times due to mistrust and fear of vaccines and the health care system. So, it’s critical that all vaccines are available to those that I treat; it’s critical that we as doctors encourage our patients to be vaccinated; and it’s critical that the CDC takes all of this into consideration and not change the current vaccination recommendations.

The Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that as of 2014, nearly 65 percent of non-Hispanic white adults aged 65 and older received a pneumococcal vaccine. But the same study showed just under 50 percent of African-American adults of the same age had been vaccinated.

Despite an increase in awareness and availability of vaccines to prevent it, pneumococcal disease strikes nearly a million people each year- — killing about 18,000 over the age of 65. Pneumococcal disease also poses an increased risk for any adult with certain diseases including heart, liver or kidney disease. Those with pulmonary disease, like COPD and asthma, also are at risk of contracting the disease.

Following one of the worst flu seasons ever, now is not the time to put more older Americans at risk for contracting pneumococcal disease.

The elderly population is continuing to grow, live longer and contribute to our society in ways unseen in generations past. Advancements in science are helping patients with some chronic conditions live healthier, longer lives. Vaccinating helps protect all of us from deadly diseases like pneumococcal disease. I encourage the CDC to keep the current pneumococcal recommendation in place for older Americans.

Camille Clare, an obstetrician/gynecologist, is the immediate past-chairwoman of the National Medical Association, Region 1.