My friend Brenda sounded awful. Always happy and optimistic, ever the seasoned Black woman on the move, she explained her malady in one, long wail. “I have shingles, I hurt everywhere and my face looks like hamburger,” she said. 

She sent a quick selfie, and I was horrified. Her beautiful face was filled with pus-filled lesions; they also covered her body. It took months for her to recover and today, four years later, she still experiences tingling from residual nerve damage.

That very day, I made an appointment to get the Shingrix shingles vaccine. “Shingrix is vastly better than the older Zostavax vaccine,” the pharmacist told me as I rolled up my sleeve.” I’d read that the new Shingrix two-shot regimen was 97% effective compared to the older shingles vaccine’s 51% efficacy in individuals aged 50 and older. Shingrix can also cause a significant reaction in most patients, including pain at the injection site, headaches, nausea and general achiness and fever. Unpleasant, but not anywhere near as bad as the condition it was meant to prevent.

“That’s true of all vaccines,” CVS pharmacist Robert Eji told me. “As you get older, your immune system just isn’t as efficient. People are so used to thinking of vaccines being for kids that they are surprised when their doctor advises that they get immunized because their childhood vaccines need a boost or they want to prevent something like hepatitis.”

Vaccines are nothing new. In fact, the first documented use of immunizations in the United States dates back to 1721, when an enslaved African man – purchased and named Onesimus by his owner, the Puritan minister Cotton Mather – shared how he was inoculated from the deadly smallpox infection.

At the time, smallpox was one of the most contagious, and deadly diseases in the colonies. The process involved rubbing a tiny bit of pus from a smallpox-infected person into a small cut on the arm and was in use, not only in west Africa but in China, India and the Middle East.

Boston’s white settlers violently opposed what they considered a demon-inspired treatment developed for or by Black people. As a result, that year, smallpox killed nearly 15% of the population who refused to be inoculated. Many more were sickened and disfigured. But not the enslaved Africans who were given the vaccine as an experiment by slaveholders; they fared much better.

That may have been the documented beginning of a long tradition of often brutal medical experiments on Black people. By 1980, smallpox was eradicated, and subsequent vaccines had prevented millions of deaths by polio, whooping cough, diphtheria, and other diseases.

Most African Americans over the age of 50 have received these standard childhood vaccines and are now being advised by their doctors and pharmacists to get additional vaccines and boosters. “I would say that the top vaccines older people need to get are the COVID vaccines and boosters,” Eji said. “Then, pneumonia.  All adults need an influenza (flu) vaccine every year and should get a Tdap booster and maybe a hepatitis B vaccine if your doctor recommends it.”  If you will be traveling out of the country, there are additional vaccines your doctor may suggest.

Now that monkeypox is spreading in the U.S., interest in that vaccine is increasing. It is a full-circle moment, as monkeypox is very similar to, but milder than, smallpox and the vaccines are similar.

Honestly, it was my vanity and the sight of my friend’s beautiful face covered in lesions that motivated me to get the shingles vaccine so quickly. And yes, the side effects knocked me out for a couple of days. I’ve since realized that vanity should not be the sole reason to take preventive health measures. About one in three unvaccinated people will get shingles and the risk rises as we get older.

Talk with your doctor or pharmacist to find out which vaccines are recommended for you at your next medical appointment or pharmacy run.