Pneumonia vaccines critical in saving lives during flu season
No matter where you look, the news is filled with stories about breakthrough medical therapies to treat cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses impacting our lives.
We are fortunate to live in a time when science is rapidly extending the therapeutic frontier. That good luck can sometimes distract us from the reality that many Americans still suffer and die from easily preventable conditions. Yet most problems associated with this challenge don't need revolutionary solutions. We can save lives, reduce illness and curb rising health care costs through the simple act of getting vaccinated against many common infections.
Access to one group of vaccines in particular is critically important to physicians who are working to improve the lives of Americans with asthma, a respiratory condition with no cure that affects approximately 25 million people across the country.
Health risks from pneumonia are potentially more dangerous than those related to the flu, but large segments of the population aren't being vaccinated against it — even those at the highest risk of contracting the disease. They include infants, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory problems like asthma.
Streptococcus pneumoniae (“pneumococcus”) is the bacterium responsible for almost a million cases and more than 50,000 deaths from pneumonia every year — twice as many as the number of flu deaths annually. That's an average of 125 deaths per day. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 400,000 hospitalizations from pneumococcal pneumonia occur annually.
The good news is pneumococcal pneumonia can be prevented. We have inexpensive, safe, effective and readily available vaccines.
The discouraging news is the vast majority of Americans who should be immunized against pneumococcal disease are not. According to a 2015 report authored by Cleveland Clinic researchers for the CDC, pneumococcal coverage among adults ages 19 to 64 in high risk groups was just more than 21 percent overall.
The CDC also reported 40 percent of seniors are not vaccinated for pneumonia, despite the fact it affects about 900,000 adults 65 and older each year. Immunization rates for this group are up only slightly in the past decade.
Closer to home, Pittsburgh's ongoing struggles with its air quality continue to impact the region's health. According to the American Lung Association's 2016 “State of the Air” report, the Pittsburgh metro area remains among the most polluted of more than 200 metro areas in the United States. Deborah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, said these findings are “putting our citizens at risk for premature death and other serious health effects such as asthma attacks and cardiovascular harm.”
It's therefore essential for those in high-risk age groups or suffering from respiratory disorders to get vaccinated against pneumococcal disease. In fact, at its annual press conference to encourage flu vaccination in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 29, the CDC stressed the importance for people in these groups to receive the pneumococcal shot at the same time they receive the flu shot.
Fortunately, it's very simple. If you have a child between the ages of 2 and 5, are older than 65 or suffer from a respiratory problem such as asthma, then talk to your health care provider about vaccination for pneumonia.
Let's not allow the miraculous revolutions in medicine we're witnessing diminish the importance of guarding against the illnesses we can already prevent.
Dr. Cary Sennett is the president and CEO at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Dr. Todd Green is a physician in the division of pulmonary medicine, allergy & immunology at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, a member of AAFA's medical-scientific council and an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.