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Importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine as an older person

Last Updated at June 8th 2021
The Federal Government is encouraging all people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, especially older Australians who are considered a vulnerable group.

Key points:

  • Older people are one of the most at risk groups for COVID-19

  • The COVID-19 vaccine reduces the likelihood of getting infected with the virus as well as the severity of symptoms if you do contract it

  • Before you get the vaccine, make sure you understand everything, so you have optimum informed consent

Older group of friends catching up.
People will not have to worry about a deadly virus once a majority of people in Australia are vaccinated against COVID-19. [Source: Shutterstock]

There are a lot of reasons why older people should get vaccinated against the coronavirus, and it is important to understand how the vaccine works so you can make an informed decision when consenting to the vaccine.

At the moment, a lot of false information about the vaccines is circulating on social media and that is not helping older Australians have faith in the available vaccines. You can read our article mythbusting misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine on the Aged Care Guide.

The more people that are vaccinated against COVID-19, the more likely Australia will be able to go back to everyday life. 

The coronavirus is incredibly viral and has a high mortality rate. If Australia wants to go back to a post-COVID life, then we need to protect as many people against the virus as possible. 

Most at risk group

Older Australians were quickly identified as the most at risk group early on into the pandemic, as people over the age of 65, especially those with underlying health conditions, were experiencing the most severe side effects of the virus.

Of the 904 deaths (as of March 2021) in Australia from COVID-19 around 94 percent were aged 70 and older. There have been a total of 221 outbreaks in residential aged care, and that doesn't include the most recent outbreaks in Victorian aged care facilities.

COVID-19 has a higher likelihood of being severe in an older person, about 1 in 3 people over the age of 80 will die from the virus and 1 in 14 would die if they were aged between 65-79. Older people with COVID-19 are also more likely to be admitted to hospital for treatment compared to a younger person.

The University of South Australia (UniSA) recently released data that found that at least 80 percent of Australians over the age of 80 are at high risk of serious illness or death if they contract COVID-19.

If older people with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or cancer were to contract COVID-19, they were more vulnerable to poor outcomes.

Lead author of the study and Deputy Director of the Quality Use of Medicines and Pharmacy Research Centre at UniSA, Associate Professor Nicole Pratt, says the findings align with evidence from overseas.

"In the US for example, 70 percent of older patients admitted for COVID-19 in the past year had high blood pressure, 43 percent had diabetes and 29 percent suffered from cardiopulmonary diseases,” says Associate Professor Pratt.

"A quarter of the older Australians that we studied live with an [autoimmune] condition like cancer or may be taking medicines that suppress their immune systems and one in five has diabetes. These conditions carry a far higher risk for COVID-19 than some other conditions."

"Our findings highlight the urgent need for older Australians to get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible."

Additionally, COVID-19 has been getting more viral as the virus develops new strains. This virus has proved over the last year or so that if it gets into an aged care facility, it can spread quickly and with deadly results. The more people that have the COVID-19 vaccine, the less likely it will spread.

Reduces transmission and severity of symptoms

There are a number of benefits to getting the COVID-19 vaccine as an older person including your personal safety and the safety of those you love. It is also one way to give back to the wider community. 

The pandemic has hugely impacted the Australian economy, small business, and the health and wellbeing of the population. 

This vaccine is one of the most effective ways to stop the virus from spreading further in the community because it is protecting you from the infectious disease and stopping it from travelling further. 

Vaccines help and train your body to better combat the virus, this in turn, stops the virus from spreading from person to person.

Australia's overall goal is to reach herd immunity, however, this requires a lot of people to roll up their sleeve and get the jab.

Just like other drugs, vaccines have efficacy ratings - each vaccine is only so effective. So there is a possibility you may still contract the virus.

Now that may sound bad, but the vaccine has been shown to reduce the severity of symptoms and make it less likely for you to pass it on to someone else.

Reducing the symptoms of COVID-19 can be vital to an older person, as it lessens the likelihood of death from the virus. The coronavirus vaccine could be the difference between a bad cold or a trip to the hospital. 

A recent study found that older bodies don't produce as many immune "emergency" signals when they develop infected cells from the flu, which results in a slower immune response to viral infections. 

Australian researchers from The University of Melbourne, Monash University and the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, believe this is one reason why older people experience severe cases of COVID-19, as their body is slow to respond to the new viral infection. 

Additionally, a study from England examined the COVID-19 experiences of people over the age of 70 after they had the vaccine (first or second dose).

It found that people vaccinated with a single dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine had a 60-70 percent lower risk of symptomatic COVID-19 at 28 days after vaccination compared to people who were not vaccinated.

Older people over 70 who were vaccinated and did contract COVID-19 had a 40 percent lower risk of being hospitalised within 14 days of a positive test compared to those who were not vaccinated.

Getting the vaccine is voluntary and your choice. At the end of the day, you need to make the right choice for you. You should not feel pressured to get the vaccine if you don't want to.

However, it's important to be aware of the implications it has, not just on you but potentially on the broad community. Choosing not to have the COVID-19 vaccine may mean you will be unable to visit a loved one in hospital or aged care, or you may not be able to travel overseas without being vaccinated once Australia eventually opens its borders.

Having informed choice around getting the vaccine is really important. Informed consent means you have information about the vaccine and that information is provided in a way you can understand, for example, through culturally or linguistically appropriate resources.

You should understand what the vaccine is, why you should or are getting it, and what side effects and benefits you may experience afterwards.

In most cases, if you have had the flu shot, you will likely experience similar symptoms. This could be a sore arm, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, or chills, and shouldn't last longer than one to two days.

Also be aware that you can withdraw your consent to the vaccine at any time, even if you have already received the first dose.

For people that are making decisions on behalf of an older person who has a cognitive disease, or if they are their Power of Attorney, they need to consider the person and what decision they would have made if they could.

This should be a conversation with the older person about what they want and what they would have decided in the past. You should also provide information about the vaccine, if they don't understand. Sometimes, a person with dementia will be able to state their preferences and, in other instances, they may not. 

Sometimes families may decide it is in the best interests of the older person's safety for them to get the vaccine or to stop it from spreading further if they have it. While some families have decided against it for different reasons, for example if their older loved one has started palliative care services.

Just remember, regardless of whether you get the vaccine or if you don't, it is important to maintain preventative measures, such as hand hygiene and social distancing.

Are you nervous to get the vaccine? What concerns do you have? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Mythbusting misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine
Keeping yourself healthy and safe during COVID-19
Everything you need to know about coronavirus

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