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November 1, 1999

Pneumonia Vaccinations Can Save Seniors' Lives

Nashville, TN (SafetyAlerts) - Most older adults know that they need a shot to protect themselves from flu, but they may not know that they should be vaccinated against bacterial pneumonia as well. "Only about 38 percent of adults 65 and older have received pneumococcal pneumonia vaccinations, even though pneumonia and influenza combined are the fifth leading cause of death for older adults in the U.S.," said Health Commissioner Fredia Wadley, M.D. "Pneumococcal disease is the most common vaccine-preventable cause of death in this country. A simple shot could save your life."

Pneumonia is an infection that can be caused by bacteria or by a virus. Most cases of bacterial pneumonia, the most serious type, can be prevented with a vaccination. This kind of pneumonia occurs when bacteria invade the lungs, and accounts for one-quarter to one-third of all adult pneumonias which require hospitalization. The same bacteria can also invade the bloodstream, causing a life threatening infection called bacteremia, or the brain, causing meningitis. Each year in the U. S. there are an estimated 500,000 cases of bacterial pneumonia, 50,000 cases of bacteremia, and 3,000 cases of meningitis, accounting for up to 40,000 deaths annually. About half of those deaths could have been prevented through vaccinations, which protect against 23 different types of bacteria.

Elderly people or those with serious medical conditions are most at risk for pneumonia, which is spread by airborne or direct exposure to respiratory droplets from a person who is infected or carrying the bacteria. Pneumonia symptoms include high fever, severe coughing, shaking chills, shortness of breath, and chest pain.

Pneumonia vaccine is safe and effective and, unlike a flu shot, provides protection for most people indefinitely. There is no need to have a shot every year, although some people may need to have a booster shot after five years. Medicare will pay for the shot. The vaccine, however, does NOT protect against viral pneumonias.

"Pneumonia vaccine can be given at any time, but is often given the same time as the flu vaccine. This year when you go to get a flu shot, ask your doctor if you also need a shot to protect against pneumonia and other kinds of pneumo-coccal disease. People who are at high risk for flu are also the same people who are most in need this vaccine," said Wadley. "That includes everyone age 65 or older, who are two to three times more get pneumococcal infections than the general population; people who have heart or lung disease, diabetes, alcoholism, or cirrhosis; and people who have a weak immune system, such as those infected with HIV."

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

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