There are a variety of factors that need to be considered in relation to the vaccination of the older population. A gradual decline of the immune system occurs as people age (known as immunosenescence), impacting how the immune system responds to new infections, as well as the effectiveness of long-term immune memory. It is for this reason that some vaccines are specifically designed for the older population and aim to enhance the immune response by using higher immunogenicity formulations or by containing adjuvants. Providing optimal protection can also be complicated due to the increasing prevalence of multiple comorbidities in the aging population. Specific medical conditions or targeted therapies (eg. chronic renal conditions, chemotherapy for cancers etc) can also cause older adults to be more vulnerable to infections and their complications. Further to this, relying on patient recall, as well as a lack of awareness for the recommended vaccines for the older population, can result in either missed vaccines or additional unnecessary doses being administered.

There are multiple vaccines recommended for the older population as outlined below.

Herpes zoster (Shingles) vaccine

Shingles is caused by a reactivation of the varicella virus and will occur in approximately 20-30% of people in their lifetime. Older people (> 70 years of age) are more likely to suffer post-herpetic neuralgia (PHN) following a shingles infection than younger people. PHN is a chronic neuropathic pain which can affect 1 in 4 cases of shingles diagnosed in those > 80 years. It can persist for months to years with pain control being difficult to manage, impacting quality of life.

Zostavax® has been shown to reduce the incidence of developing shingles by up to 50%, as well as the incidence of PHN in those ≥ 60 years of age by 66%. It is currently funded under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for persons aged 70 years, with a catch-up program for those aged 71–79 years also funded (until October 2021). As it is a live-attenuated vaccine, it is contraindicated for use in those who are immunosuppressed, or on immunosuppressive medications (eg; Rituximab, Azathioprine, Prednisolone, chemotherapy etc). Prior to administering Zostavax® it is important to take a thorough patient history to determine suitability for immunisation. Further guidance can be provided by reviewing MVEC’s Zostavax GP decision aid or by contacting SAEFVIC prior to immunisation.

Pneumococcal vaccines

Invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD) can manifest as meningitis, pneumonia and bacteremia, with severe disease requiring hospitalisation, causing significant morbidity and even death. The elderly (along with infants) are at the highest risk of developing IPD. Recommendations for pneumococcal vaccines in adults vary according to age and medical condition [refer to ATAGI clinical advice on vaccination recommendations for people with risk conditions from 1 July 2020]. Pneumococcal vaccines are currently provided for free on the NIP for the following people:

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults with NO risk condition – 1 dose of Prevenar 13® at 50 years of age, followed 8 weeks later by 2 doses of Pneumovax 23®, given 5 years apart
  • Non-indigenous adults with NO risk condition – 1 dose of Prevenar 13® at >70 years
  • Non-indigenous adolescents/adults diagnosed with a risk condition – 1 dose of Prevenar 13® at diagnosis, followed by 2 doses of Pneumovax 23®, given 5 years apart

In adults, injection site reactions may occur > 3 days following the Prevenar 13® dose given at > 70 years, particularly in those who have previously received Pneumovax 23 ®. A history of large local injection site reactions following previous pneumococcal vaccines is not a contraindication to further doses.

Refer to MVEC: Pneumococcal vaccines and diseases for more information.

Influenza vaccines

For older adults, and those with certain medical conditions (eg. chronic lung disease, cardiac disease, immunosuppression), influenza disease can cause serious morbidity and mortality. Annual influenza vaccination is strongly encouraged and it is available for free on the NIP for those ≥ 65 years of age and/or adults with certain medical conditions. Due to a reduced immune response to routine influenza vaccines, those aged ≥ 65 years should receive higher-immunogenicity influenza vaccines.

Refer to MVEC: Influenza vaccine recommendations for specific information on brands and dosing.

COVID-19 vaccines

Older people and those with comorbidities (eg. hypertension, diabetes, chronic lung disease etc) are much more likely to suffer from severe COVID-19 disease if infected. Of those who are > 80 years of age and have COVID-19 disease, approximately 1 in 3 will die from it.

Currently in Australia there are 2 vaccines approved for use to prevent severe COVID-19 disease. They are available for free, with older populations in the earlier priority groups identified for eligibility. Both vaccines have been recommended by the TGA for use in older people.

For more information on COVID-19 vaccination for older people please refer to COVID-19 vaccination – COVID-19 vaccination decision guide for frail older people, including those in residential aged care facilities or Guidance for vaccination care of residents of RACF.

Reporting to the Australian Immunisation Register (AIR)

The AIR provides a record of all vaccine doses given, the date of administration as well as the specific brands used. Since 2016 vaccines administered to Australians of any age have been recorded onto the AIR. Patient recall, particularly in the older population, is not reliable and as such it important that immunisation records are accurately maintained and reviewed regularly.

From March 2021, new legislation came into effect making reporting vaccines to AIR mandatory. This includes all COVID-19 vaccines, influenza vaccines and all National Immunisation Program vaccines.

Refer to MVEC: Australian Immunisation Register for more information.

Resources

Authors: Daryl Cheng (Paediatrician, The Royal Children’s Hospital), Francesca Machingaifa (MVEC Education Nurse Coordinator) and Rachael McGuire (MVEC Education Nurse Coordinator)

Reviewed by: Rachael McGuire (MVEC Education Nurse Coordinator)

Date: June 2021

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Melbourne Vaccine Education Centre (MVEC) staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family’s personal health. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult a healthcare professional.