April 17, 2024

An infectious disease expert answers your vaccination questions—including whether to get a measles booster.

What Vaccines Do Adult Women Need?

Now that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, you likely have a newfound appreciation for the power of vaccination—and you also might be wondering whether there are other vaccines adult women need.

“One of the most common misconceptions about vaccination is that vaccines aren’t needed because the diseases that they target are abstract or remote,” says Dr. Don Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre. Instead, however, we need to remain vigilant about vaccination to keep it that way.

Just look at what’s currently happening with measles. Canada achieved “elimination status” for measles through vaccination in 1998—meaning that the disease was no longer spreading on its own in this country. But vaccination rates have fallen and as of the time this article was published, at least 31 cases—many, but not all, contracted through travel—have been reported in Canada this year. (By comparison, a total of 12 cases were reported in 2023.) Measles is highly infectious; for anyone at risk—in other words, people who are not vaccinated and who have never had measles before—exposure leads to a 90 percent chance of infection. 

While most people were vaccinated against measles in childhood, Vinh notes that healthy adults with no heightened exposure risk should get an additional MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) booster.

Here are the vaccines that healthy adult women without underlying conditions should consider getting. 

“All of the diseases preventable by vaccine are as bad if not worse in women who are pregnant,” explains Vinh. “They can be dangerous for the mother, the pregnancy and the baby.” For this reason, Health Canada recommends the following vaccines for pregnant women.

TDAP (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, a.k.a. whooping cough) Pregnant people should receive a TDAP vaccine during every pregnancy, even if they’ve received it before.

Hepatitis B Women at risk for hepatitis B should be fully vaccinated before pregnancy for full protection. This vaccine series requires three doses; your healthcare provider can help determine whether you would benefit from vaccination.

What vaccines do healthy women aged 35 to 50+ need?

Flu (influenza) “The 35 to 50 demographic doesn’t consider flu to be an important vaccine,” Vinh says of this annual one-dose influenza vaccine, typically available in the fall. “But flu is a major cause of absenteeism from work, and you can get complications.” He also notes the flu can lead to longer-term repercussions; for instance, a 2018 study found that people were six times more likely to have a heart attack in the week following flu infection. 

MMR ”If there’s any doubt [as] or if you can’t find your immunization record, it’s best to get the booster dose,” Vinh says, noting that there’s no risk in receiving another dose even if you’re already protected, provided you don’t have any immunocompromising conditions.

Tetanus Requires a booster approximately every 10 years.

What vaccines should women aged 50+ get? 

RSV and Pneumococcal Vinh says that healthy people over 60 should get the single-dose RSV vaccine, and healthy people over 65 get the single-dose pneumococcal vaccine. Both vaccines protect against strains of respiratory infection that are problematic for older adults.

Zoster (shingles) “Anyone who has had chickenpox is at risk of getting shingles” says Vinh, “but the risk is increased for those 50 and older.” Both diseases are caused by the same varicella-zoster virus;  shingles causes skin lesions and also neuralgia (sharp pain due to nerve inflammation). The two-dose zoster vaccine is, according to Vinh, extremely effective and remarkably long lasting.

How can I figure out what vaccines I already have? 

Your family doctor or local health unit should have your up-to-date immunization records. (You may also have a paper immunization record from childhood, if you can still find it.)

In Ontario, residents can create their own digital immunization record using a service called Immunization Connect Ontario, which is available through your local health unit.

In some provinces, such as Quebec and British Columbia, immunization records have started to be digitized. Residents and/or health care professionals can access vaccine records from a central registry, though depending on when the registry was implemented it might not have your complete record.

Since vaccination is managed at the provincial level, your local health unit or provincial ministry of health can provide more information about adult immunization schedules for your province and whether the costs of certain vaccinations are covered by provincial healthcare. 

Ultimately, Vinh notes that we shouldn’t take vaccination for granted: “Otherwise, we risk going backwards as a society.”

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