Health Break | Published January 10, 2005 | Written by Marlene Stetson, RN, CIC, infection control coordinator, Mount Nittany Medical Center

Pneumococcal Vaccine Should Not Be Overlooked

The flu vaccine tends to get a lot of public attention, and with a shortage last fall, media accounts made the flu vaccine a headline story for months.

Often overlooked by the public and media alike are other vaccines that can help prevent certain contagious diseases. One of these vaccines is pneumococcal vaccine, sometimes called the pneumonia shot.

Pneumococcal disease is a leading cause of illness and death among adults throughout the world. In fact, pneumococcal disease causes more deaths than all other vaccine-preventable bacterial diseases combined; yet, only about 27 percent of people ages 65 and older have been vaccinated. Some sources say that only 10 percent of persons for whom the vaccine is recommended are vaccinated.

Pneumococcal disease is caused by bacteria that invade the lungs, where they cause the most common kind of bacterial pneumonia. The bacteria can also invade the bloodstream or the brain.

The condition of having bacteria in the bloodstream is called bacteremia, which may cause no symptoms and resolve without treatment, or it may cause fever and other symptoms of infection. In some cases, bacteremia may cause septic shock, a potentially life-threatening condition, resulting from a lethal drop in blood pressure.

In the brain, bacteria can cause meningitis, which results in the inflammation of the meninges of the brain and spinal cord. Fever, vomiting, intense headaches and stiff necks characterize this bacterial infection.

Each year, pneumococcal diseases account for approximately 60,000 cases of bacteremia (blood infection), 3,300 cases of meningitis and 500,000 cases of pneumonia. An estimated 40,000 people in the United States die from pneumococcal disease every year. Approximately 50 percent of these deaths could be prevented with the pneumococcal vaccine. The vaccine protects against up to 90 percent of the pneumococcal bacteria types that cause pneumococcal disease.

Certain people should be protected from the pneumococcal bacteria, because they are at greater risk than the general population. Talk to your doctor about getting the vaccine if you are on the high-risk groups, which includes:

  • People who are age 65 or older
  • People with chronic disease of the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys
  • People with diabetes
  • People with weak immune systems due to diseases like cancer, AIDS, kidney disease or from certain medicines

The pneumonia shot can be given at any time of the year. Unlike the flu vaccine, the pneumonia vaccine is not required annually. One dose of the vaccine is recommended for most people age 65 or older. However, some people who were younger than 65 when they received the pneumococcal vaccine may need another booster after five years. The cost of the vaccine is covered by Medicare and many insurance plans.

Pneumococcal vaccine is generally well tolerated. The most common side effects are slight soreness at the injection site, muscle aches and low-grade fever. As with any medicine, there are very small risks that serious problems could occur after getting a vaccine. You cannot get pneumococcal disease from the vaccine.

You can learn more about pneumococcal disease and the pneumococcal vaccine from the following agency Web sites:

Marlene Stetson is the infection control coordinator at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

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