Vaccine helps protect seniors and at-risk populations from variety of infections

It kills 40,000 people in the United States each year – more than all other vaccine-preventable diseases – and, combined with influenza, is the seventh leading cause of death for Texans. But many potential victims of pneumococcal disease don’t get the one shot that could protect them from a possibly deadly infection of the lungs, the blood or the covering of the brain, Texas Department of Health (TDH) immunization officials report.

Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, says Lisa Davis, TDH’s adult immunization coordinator. But those most vulnerable are over 65 and anyone 2 or older who has diabetes, heart or lung disease or other long-term health problems or lowered resistance to infection. “Those are the people who need the protection of the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV).”

The culprit is Streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacteria that is a common cause of pneumonia, bacteremia and meningitis. Drugs such as penicillin once were effective in treating infections such as these, says Davis. But the disease has become more resistant to antibiotics, making treatment of pneumococcal infections more difficult and prevention through vaccination even more important.

Those who should get PPV include:

•All adults 65 or older.
•Anyone 2 and older who has a long-term health problem such as heart disease, lung disease (not including asthma), sickle-cell disease, diabetes, alcoholism, cirrhosis or leaks of the cerebrospinal fluid.
•Anyone 2 and older who has a disease or condition that can lower the body’s resistance to infection. These include Hodgkin’s disease, lymphoma and leukemia, kidney failure, multiple myeloma, nephrotic syndrome, HIV infection or AIDS, damaged spleen or no spleen, or organ transplant.
•Anyone 2 and older who takes long-term steroids or certain cancer drugs or receives radiation therapy.
•Alaskan natives and certain Native American populations.

Davis says that people 65 years and older – especially those living in group settings such as nursing homes and long-term care facilities – and those identified as being at risk for pneumococcal illness are more vulnerable to infection. “The idea is to prevent the infection from happening in the first place, and PPV is an effective and easy way to do that.”

The vaccine is in adequate supply, she says, and one dose is all most people need although there are a few exceptions to the one-dose rule. “If you were vaccinated before 65, and it’s been at least five years since you received your PPV shot, you should ask your doctor if you need a booster,” Davis said.

Others who may be candidates for a booster shot after five years include those with functional or anatomic asplenia, transplant patients, patients with chronic kidney disease and those who are immunosuppressed or immunodeficient, she added.

Pneumococcal disease doesn’t have a season, said Davis, although some infections seem to be more common in the winter and spring. “When you get the vaccination is not as important as that you do get it. A lot of people choose to get their PPV shot when they get their influenza vaccine because it is convenient to do both at the same time.”

More than 55 percent of Texans 65 and older have received at least one dose of PPV. Health officials are aiming for a 90 percent vaccination rate for those 65 and older by 2010.