Pneumonia shots not going to all who need them, authorities say

While a nationwide push for vaccination against H1N1 and seasonal flu has led to long lines for shots, another vaccine against a common and deadly flu complication — pneumonia — hasn't gotten nearly as much attention, The Baltimore Sun reported Dec. 15.

Most babies get the pneumococcal vaccine, but only two-thirds of seniors, who generally are the hardest hit by flu each year, get their recommended dose. And vaccines get to only one-third of older children and adults with existing health problems, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. ??"

We have a window of opportunity because there may be another wave of H1N1 influenza and seasonal flu season hasn't started yet," said Dr. Deborah L. Wexler, executive director of the Immunization Action Coalition, which provides information to doctors and advocates for vaccines. "A huge number of people should be getting the vaccine who aren't getting it. If you can protect yourself from something that could kill you, why would you not?"

Public health officials say the pneumonia vaccine suffers from a lack of advertising. Also, they say many doctors might not know which patients should receive the vaccine.

Sometimes the recommendations change. The CDC, for example, recently began advising that adult smokers and people with asthma get vaccinated.

But because flu season lasts until May and more outbreaks are likely, some of those officials, including the top ranks at the CDC, have begun talking about the pneumonia vaccine, which they say could save thousands of lives a year and prevent debilitating effects of severe illness in many more.

Bacterial pneumonia is closely linked to flu, and in past outbreaks many of those who have died have also had such a lung infection. The CDC says early data show that this pandemic may be similar.

A recent study found that at least one-third of those who died of swine flu also had a kind of vaccine-preventable pneumonia.

The vaccine also can prevent some other bacterial infections, including bloodstream infections and meningitis, which infects the tissues and fluids around the brain and spinal cord. In general, about one in 20 people who get bacterial pneumonia die, and three in 10 who get meningitis die.

Doses of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine are given to babies at 2, 4, 6 and 12 to 15 months as part of their series of vaccinations and are required by many school districts. Also called PCV7 or Prevnar, it protects against seven strains of the most common Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. A new vaccine was recently approved that would ward off 13 strains.

The CDC recommends that those ages 2 to 64 with health problems and seniors 65 and older get a dose of a different version, the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine. Also called PPSV23 or Pneumovax, it protects against 23 strains of bacteria. Typically, one shot is sufficient.