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Study Suggests Cutting Some Vaccine Boosters For Rare Diseases


People are supposed to get boosters for tetanus and diphtheria once every 10 years. Now researchers in Oregon say that's too much. NPR's Rae Ellen Bichell reports on the case for once every 30 years.

RAE ELLEN BICHELL, BYLINE: Tetanus and diphtheria are extremely rare in the U.S.

MARK SLIFKA: There's more cases of anthrax every year than there are of diphtheria. That's how rare that disease has become because of vaccinations.

BICHELL: That's Mark Slifka, an immunologist at Oregon Health and Science University. Children get a series of vaccines to protect against the bacteria. And adults are supposed to get a booster shot every 10 years to keep up their immunity. But when Slifka and his colleagues studied about 500 people in Washington and Oregon, they concluded that almost all of them would likely remain protected for at least 30 years.

SLIFKA: So you could have one vaccination at the age of 30 and one vaccination at the age of 60. Then you don't have to try and remember - how long ago was it when I had my last shot? Instead you just say, oh, it's my 30th birthday. I should get my tetanus and diphtheria shot.

BICHELL: Slifka says cutting down on adult vaccination could save about $280 million a year. Dr. Flor Munoz, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, says the study is compelling.

FLOR MUNOZ: The rationale, I think, is very sound for looking at this data.

BICHELL: But the big question is - do these results from Oregon apply to the whole country? It would take a bigger study to figure that out. And there's another thing.

MUNOZ: One of the assumptions here is that all children received their vaccines and you have this protection. And we know that's not true. Many children are not vaccinated. And we have, actually, increasing pockets of unvaccinated young children that might be at risk.

BICHELL: If people don't get the full vaccine series as children and then miss their boosters as adults, that could be bad. After the Soviet Union fell, child vaccination dropped, adults stopped getting boosters and after years with few cases, thousands of people got diphtheria. Slifka says it was like taking a match to a forest. Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
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