VITAL are tallying the burden of infectious diseases in ageing adults to figure out the best strategies to keep people healthier for longer
Ageing adults are at high risk of complications from vaccine-preventable illnesses. This is due to age-associated changes in immune function as well as exposure to other chronic health conditions. As the population gets older, the problem will grow, and therefore there is a real need to figure out the best preventative strategies to keep us healthy into old age.
VITAL wants to know the burden of infectious diseases in ageing people (i.e. the impact as measured by cost, mortality, morbidity, quality of life, and frailty, among other indicators) and the age-related factors that hamper immune responsiveness. The findings will be used to provide evidence-based knowledge on the best vaccination strategies for healthier ageing, which it hopes will be picked up by healthcare workers and public health policy makers.
We asked project coordinator Debbie van Baarle, Professor of Immunology of Vaccinations at the University Medical Centre, Groningen, about the project’s objectives and expected challenges.
Can you describe the problem that this project is seeking to fix?
Ageing adults are more exposed to infections than other age groups except children. Moreover, when they have an infection, they suffer more than others and therefore they may have more difficulties in recovering well promptly. This has been exemplified by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the high need, there are limited suitable vaccines available or the knowledge of their impact for this age group has not been fully captured as there is no true vaccination programme for ageing adults in place. This leaves those citizens not well protected against the majority of infectious diseases they are facing, which can lead to a high morbidity and mortality burden and a higher demand in healthcare support and healthcare systems.
The major objective of the project is to improve vaccination strategies by understanding better which infectious diseases affect ageing adults the most, why they respond worse to infections and vaccinations, what strategies could assist in improving heathy ageing in this group. We are also looking at it from an economic perspective, and how we should communicate about available or novel vaccination strategies.
The project has just started. What have you managed to achieve so far?
One milestone we already achieved is in obtaining insights into the perspective of older people on vaccination. This will help in communicating about vaccination. Furthermore, we are analysing and comparing vaccination responses between older and younger people to understand the deficits underlying immune protection in elderly. We are also collecting retrospective and prospective data on the burden of the disease and, finally, we are developing models that can help study the impact and priority-setting of novel vaccination strategies for a better implementation.
In 20 years, if this project is successful, how will the lives of ageing people be different?
If the project is successful, we will have a coordinated and efficient vaccination programme for ageing adults akin to what exists today for children. The programme will be well integrated into the existing healthcare system. It will help indicate at an early stage which next big infectious problem should be tackled with adequate or better vaccines and having a good monitoring and surveillance system in place to track changes in infectious pathogens. The final goal is to have a more efficient and sustainable preventative programme in place that can ensure healthy ageing in European adults.
What kind of challenges do you face? How do you plan to overcome it?
We are facing two big challenges caused by COVID-19: one is the high focus and priority setting of this new disease that heavily impacts ageing adults. This leads to an imbalance that needs be readjusted over time, placing prevention and vaccination against other infections at a lower level. The other major challenge at the moment is that the current pandemic makes some of our tasks more difficult to execute. Our experts are also on the frontline of the fight against the new coronavirus, and due to lockdowns and changes in our behaviour, some of our tasks have been delayed. However, we feel that this also leads to novel opportunities, which we will implement in the project where possible.
The current situation in the world also had an impact on the way we interact and collaborate. We have found novel ways to meet and discuss and get more used to digital platforms, which makes interaction across Europe much easier.