Vaccines: Not just for kids!


Take that, pneumonia!


While it may be a new year, the old diseases keep on happening.  Have you seen the news about how the flu is particularly bad this year and particularly busy making people sick?  Or the fact that some visitors to Disneyland got a whole lot more than Mickey Mouse ears on a recent visit (measles makes for such a fun souvenir).  Oh, infectious diseases.  You’d think by now we would have vaccines against you.

I jest. Of course we have vaccines against a lot of terrible diseases. (The fact that some people continue to refuse them is a whole other problem).  And you all know that you should get yourself and your kids vaccinated according to the recommended schedule.  But, did you know that the older adults in your life also need to keep themselves protected against infectious diseases?  Today, we are going to talk about pneumonia and how those mature individuals in your life need to go get that shot.

Infectious pneumonia is a term used to refer to a host of different lung infections that can be caused by fungi, viruses (like the flu), and bacteria. In the United States, the most common cause of bacterial pneumonia acquired outside of a hospital is caused by a nasty little bug named Streptococcus pneumoniae.  Bacterial pneumonia can be mild, but it is often very serious, especially for older adults and young children. Every year, pneumonia (of all kinds) causes 350,000 – 620,000 hospitalizations in the elderly every year.  Unfortunately, older people have lower rates of survival than young people.  And even more alarming, seniors who survive pneumonia have higher than normal death rates for the next several years. Indeed, community acquired pneumonia is the 5th leading cause of death in people over age 65.  A significant reason for pneumonia-related deaths are due to complications that arise from pneumonia infection, such as blood stream infections and brain infections (meningitis).

But now for the good news!  We have not one, but two, recommended vaccines to prevent the very serious complications of bacterial pneumonia. The CDC has long recommended that individuals age 50 and over receive a single vaccine called Pneumovax 23.  This vaccine  protects against 23 different strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae. This vaccine has been shown to be effective at preventing a severe complication of pneumonia, but it has never proven to be very successful at preventing pneumonia itself. But now, older individuals are also urged to get vaccinated with Prevnar 13 (the vaccine that we have been giving children since approximately 2010). Why the double up? Studies have now shown that the second vaccine provides substantial additional protection for older adults.  And rest assured, studies have also shown that Prevnar 13 is safe and does not pose a serious risk to most healthy adults (as always, you want to talk to your doctor anytime you are getting a vaccine to make sure that it is appropriate for you and does not contain ingredients to which you are allergic).

Here is how the new recommendation works:

  1. If an individual age 65 or older has never been vaccinated, or their vaccination status is unknown, he should receive the Prevnar 13 vaccine as soon as possible.  A follow-up shot of Pneumovax 23 should be given 6-12 months later.
  2. If an individual age 65 or older received the Pneumovax 23 vaccine more than one year ago, then they should speak to their physician about getting the Prevnar 13 vaccine as soon as possible.

It’s pretty simple. It’s important. And it is also now covered by Medicare.  As of February 2015, Medicare will cover the cost of both shots  in order to align with the new CDC recommendations.

Know what else is good news about the Prevnar 13 vaccine? Since becoming one of the routine vaccines given to children in the U.S., the rates of Streptococcus-caused pneumonia have been dramatically reduced. Remember that concept of herd immunity? It’s at work again – as more kids have been vaccinated, the bacteria makes less of an appearance in the community. And this protects everyone. The fantastic thing is that because it has worked so well among kiddos, the CDC foresees the potential to eventually remove the second recommendation for adults because the disease will simply be less of a threat. How amazing is that?

So, now you have it. The reasons to have your older friends and relatives get their pneumonia vaccines. And while they are at it, make sure they get their flu shot and vaccinated against pertussis (particularly if you have young infants around your house that Grandma wants to smother in kisses).

Oh. And Go Bucks! (It’s the National Championship tonight, after all).




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