Stronger education on pneumonia vaccine needed

40,000 people die annually without shot

Quickly, now: If you knew a disease that killed 40,000 people each year, many of them senior citizens, and you knew there was a safe vaccine for it, what would you do?

Unfortunately, if the disease is pneumonococcal pneumonia, you don’t seem to tell your patients about it.

In recent years, the flu season never passes without an educational blitz on the need for flu shots, especially for seniors. The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine needs the same publicity, says Brenda Nicely, project officer at the National Coalition for Adult Immunization in Bethesda, MD.

Seniors who contract influenza tend to be more vulnerable during their illness. "Pneumonia is transmitted like a cold. If someone sneezes, you can get it. Also, a lot of older individuals who contract influenza end up with pneumonia because of the similarities in the disease," she says.

The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine is usually a once-in-a-lifetime vaccine, although some people may need a booster every five years. The vaccine can be given any time during the year, but many patients receive the booster with their flu shot. It is covered by Medicare, yet no more than 30% of adults 65 years or older receive the booster. Only 8% to 10% of high-risk groups are vaccinated.

People most at risk for pneumococcal pneumonia are:

• people who are age 65 or older;

• people who have a chronic illness such as cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases, alcoholism, diabetes mellitis, or cirrhosis;

• people with a weak immune system due to illnesses such as AIDS, chronic renal failure, organ transplantation, Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma.

[Editor’s note: For more information write: National Coalition for Adult Immunization, 4733 Bethesda Avenue, Suite 750, Bethesda, MD 20814-5228. Telephone: (301) 656-0003. Fax: (301) 907-0878. E-Mail:]