U.S. Adults Dying of Preventable Diseases

Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Kill More Americans Than Car Wrecks

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 24, 2009

July 24, 2009 – Diseases easily preventable by adult vaccines kill more Americans each year than car wrecks, breast cancer, or AIDS.

Yet relatively few in the U.S. know much about these diseases -- and far too few adults get vaccinated, find surveys by the CDC and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).

"It may surprise you to learn that over 50,000 adults die each year of diseases that are potentially vaccine preventable," NFID president-elect William Schaffner, MD, said at a news conference held to announce the survey results.

"We have a chronic disease epidemic in the U.S. It is taxing our families and taxing our economy," the CDC's Anne Schuchat, MD, said at the news conference. "We have a need for culture change in America. We worry about things when they are really bad rather than focusing on prevention, which can keep us out of the hospital and keep our families thriving."

What are these diseases? Don't be surprised if you don't know. The surveys show that fewer than half of Americans are familiar with this list:

  • Flu. Most Americans don't know that flu is the biggest killer of all vaccine-preventable diseases.
  • Hepatitis B. Only 40% of Americans say they know about this major cause of liver cancer and liver disease.
  • Pneumococcal disease kills 4,500 U.S. adults each year -- yet only 20% of Americans know much about it.
  • Meningitis. It's a killer, but only 36% of Americans know this.
  • Shingles. Fewer than half of young adults know that chickenpox virus hangs around to cause shingles later in life.
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV) causes cervical cancer and genital warts. There are more than 6 million new infections each year, yet only 30% of Americans say they're very aware of the problem.
  • Tetanus. Fewer than half of young Americans know tetanus causes lockjaw.
  • Pertussis or whooping cough. Only 37% of young people, and only 67% of older people, know that there's a vaccine to prevent this disease, which can be serious in adults but life threatening when adults transmit the disease to young children.

A big problem with getting adults vaccinated is that universal coverage for the cost of vaccines ends when a person turns 19. Many adults think vaccines are just for kids.

As a result, vaccination rates are low. According to the CDC survey:

  • Pneumococcal vaccine is used by 25% of Americans at high risk of severe illness and by 60% of Americans aged 65 and older.
  • Hepatitis B vaccinations were completed by 32% of high-risk U.S. adults under age 50 and for 34% of non-high-risk adults under age 50.
  • HPV vaccinations have been given to only 10.5% of American women 19-26 -- and only 6% got all three shots.
  • Tetanus shots are current for only 60% of U.S. adults under age 65 and only 52% for older adults.
  • Flu shots are taken by fewer than two-thirds of adults at high risk of severe flu complications.
  • Shingles vaccines are taken by only 7% of U.S. adults 60 and older.

"These findings show poor insight and possible complacency about adult immunization among the adult population -- and lack of knowledge about vaccine-preventable diseases in general," Susan J. Rehm, MD, medical director for the NFID, said at the news conference.

Show Sources


William Schaffner, MD, president-elect, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; director of infectious diseases, Vanderbilt University.

Anne Schuchat, MD, director, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, CDC.

Stanley A. Gall, MD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and women's health, University of Louisville, Ky.

Robert H. Hopkins, MD, associate professor, University of Arkansas.

Cora L. Christian, MD, AARP Board of Directors.

Susan J. Rehm, MD, medical director, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases; Cleveland Clinic Department of Infectious Diseases.

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases survey by Caravan Opinion Research Corp., Feb. 19-22, 2009.

News release, CDC.

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