These things always seem to start simply enough. I was driving to Shreveport one frosty November morning about five years ago to give a speech and spend a couple of days educating folks on health insurance compliance. Just north of Alexandria, I stopped at my favorite barbecue place for lunch. As I was getting out of the car, my back brushed the seat, and I got a pain in my side –a really strong, kind of burning pain. Very unpleasant!
“Getting old is just DELIGHTFUL!” I remember thinking to myself.
Over the next few days, the burning sensation got more painful and started to spread across the middle of my back and around my sides toward my chest. I kept looking in the mirror, expecting to see something, but there was nothing. By the time I got home, it hurt a LOT! What the heck was going on?
So, Mike, what did you have?
My primary care doctor (PCP) was pretty analytical about it, “Let’s see, you’re 55, overweight, under a lot of stress and probably working too much,” she mused. “Did you ever have chickenpox when you were a kid?”
“I did, but that was like 45 years ago!” I explained.
“Yeah, but you’ve also got these little red bumps starting to pop up on your back,” she said. “Congratulations, you’ve got SHINGLES, a fun recurrence brought to you courtesy of the herpes zoster virus, which has probably been hanging around inside your body for 40 years or more!”
She has the funniest sense of humor, but I didn’t even like the sound of that one. She gave me pain medicine, anti-virals (so expensive!) and told me to take it easy. “Heat might help!” It did.
When I went back two weeks later, she also told me, “You know, there’s a vaccine you can get so that you don’t get shingles again.”
“It can happen AGAIN?” I cried! “I’ll take the shot right now!”
And I did, just a few days later. And then a booster a few months after that.
Wait, Mike, vaccines aren’t just for kids?
And so began the lessons from my brilliant PCP about how amazing vaccines can be as you age. I mean, we absolutely should vaccinate all of our kids against all the horrible childhood diseases that science has beaten over the past 75 years or so, but grown-up vaccines were new to me.
My PCP educated me on vaccines for pneumonia, shingles, HPV and influenza, telling me which ones work the best, how effective they are and how long they last. Even what we call a “tetanus shot” is essentially a vaccine too. The newest one is called a “Tdap” because it covers tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whopping cough) all in ONE! I got one of those too!
Even if these diseases aren’t life-threatening to you, the costs of dealing with them is VERY high if you don’t opt for the protection of a vaccine.
For example, the average shingles patient (like me) misses 32 hours of work AND then is at decreased productivity for more than 80 hours before they feel better. Multiply that times 1,000,000 (yes, there are an average of one MILLION cases of shingles in the U.S. each year among working folks) and you can see that little shot might save us a fortune.
Just take the seasonal flu, for instance. In an average year, $17 billion is lost to the flu in sick time, medical costs, hours and productivity. Even if the next flu shot is 75% effective, you can see it will save you a ton of money. AND you might not have to be sick too, which is a wonderful thing! I hate the flu.
So, Mike, why are you going on about vaccines all of a sudden?
Simply put, it occurs to me in our current circumstances with COVID-19, we all have a huge decision to make in the next few months about very, very important brand new vaccines that will come into the market. Specifically, the vaccines for coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Twenty-six of them are already in human trials! A total of 180 companies worldwide are working on a COVID-19 vaccine.
I’ve heard people say things already like “I’ll never take any COVID vaccine” or “How do I know those vaccines are safe if they are rushing them?” When safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines hit the market (and they will, trust me), if enough people refuse to take them, our nation will continue to take hit after hit economically, mentally, emotionally and physically from COVID-19. If a large enough section of the population is vaccinated, COVID-19 will go the way of smallpox or measles or polio and be a very rare event.
To be clear, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said CLEARLY that no vaccine will be allowed on the market that is not safe and at least 50% effective. That’s the bare minimum requirement, and you will know effectiveness and safety before anyone starts using the vaccines.
Personally, I would take one today if it was available, and start putting this worry about the safety of my friends, parents and family behind me, but I know I’m not everyone.
Straight Talk is, what I’m asking you today, is to start thinking hard about taking one of these vaccines when they become available. I’d be surprised if they weren’t on the market by January 2021. Stay in touch with your primary care doctor; they will be on the front lines of delivering these critical vaccines when they are available.
Vaccines are, I believe, our best, safest bet to recapture our pre-COVID-19 lives. There are no guarantees, but I have a firm faith in well-funded and well-regulated science to make COVID-19 much less of a threat to all of us.
Think it over. It may be one of the most important decisions you ever make.