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A Single Shot Can Save Adults from Deadly Pneumococcal Disease

September 24, 2014

These days, it seems like you can’t watch the evening news without hearing something about a disease outbreak. The media has given significant attention—and rightfully so— to diseases such as swine flu, bird flu, MERS-CoV and, of course, the deadly Ebola virus.

What if I told you there is a less-publicized disease that causes far more hospitalizations and deaths in U.S. adults each year than all of those diseases combined?

It’s true—and the silent but deadly culprit is called pneumococcal disease.

The disease is a leading cause of hospitalizations and preventable deaths among American adults—and it can be stopped by a simple vaccine.

In the United States, there seems to be a prevailing thought that, as grown-ups, we don’t need to get shots—that they’re just for kids. But that mindset needs to change—especially with pneumococcus. Making that happen is part of our mission at Orlando Health Physician Enterprise.

Caused by bacteria, pneumococcal disease can lead to pneumonia, meningitis and the blood-stream infection bacteremia. These are spread via person-to-person contact with respiratory secretions such as saliva and mucus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate as many as 400,000 hospitalizations from pneumococcal pneumonia occur annually. By comparison, hospitalizations associated with seasonal flu average more than 200,000. More than 95 percent of pneumococcal deaths in the United States are in adults.

As a practicing pediatrician, I feel that adult medicine needs to learn some lessons from pediatrics. Too often in the adult world, we tend to focus more on disease diagnosis and treatment, and less on prevention. But prevention should be at the top of the list.

That is particularly true with pneumococcal disease.

Over time, strains of the bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, making prevention through vaccination even more important. Commonly referred to as the “pneumonia vaccine,” pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) and pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV) protect against up to 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria, including those most likely to cause serious illness. Pneumococcal pneumonia kills about 1 out of 20 Americans who contract it, according to the CDC. Bacteremia kills about 1 in 5 Americans who get it, while meningitis kills about 3 in 10 who develop it.

Although insurance coverage of pneumococcal shots is essentially universal, nearly 70 million high-risk American adults remain unvaccinated. Ask your doctor if you are among them and should be immunized. In addition to seniors, other high-risk patients include those with:

  • Long-term health problems, such as heart disease and diabetes
  • Reduced resistance to infection caused by illness (Hodgkin’s disease, leukemia and HIV)
  • Reduced resistance caused by treatments (long-term steroids, certain cancer drugs and radiation therapy)
In most healthy adults, protection develops within two to three weeks of receiving the vaccine. Side effects are minimal, ranging from redness or achiness at the vaccine site to 24 hours of fatigue.