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One Shot Keeps Bacterial Pneumonia at Bay

WebMD Health News

April 3, 2001 -- Many cases of pneumonia could be prevented with just one shot. But according to a new study in the April 4 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, many people who should be receiving the shot to prevent pneumonia, caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, aren't.

Although the pneumococcal vaccine has been around for a while, lots of folks don't even know it exists. That's a pity, because with the increase in antibiotic-resistant pneumonia, treating this type of pneumonia has gotten a lot more difficult.

Most people only need one shot to prevent disease for their entire lifetime. Currently, vaccination is recommended for everyone over age 65 and for people younger than 65 with a chronic disease, such as heart or lung disease, diabetes, spleen problems, or sickle cell disease.

In addition, the immunization is important for anyone with HIV infection, cancer, or a weakened immune system for any other reason.

"We know pneumonia is the No. 1 cause of death from infectious disease in the U.S.," Michael Niederman, MD, tells WebMD. "The vaccine isn't perfect; it can't prevent every single case. However, right now it is being grossly underutilized." Niederman is chairman of the department of medicine and chief of the division of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Winthrop-University Hospital in Minneola, N.Y.

In their study, researchers at the Active Bacterial Core Surveillance/Emerging Infections Program Network looked at records on every case of infection due to the pneumonia bacteria during 1998 in nine states, and used that data to extrapolate figures for the whole U.S.

They calculated there were almost 63,000 cases of pneumonia and related conditions. Almost 30% of the cases occurred in people over 65, and the majority could have been prevented with vaccination. Among patients aged 2 to 64 years who developed pneumonia, at least half should have been vaccinated because they had a chronic illness of some kind.

Almost 20% of cases were children under 2 years. Many of these cases could be avoided with a new, recently approved pneumococcal vaccine. Parents should be sure their infants receive the pneumococcal vaccine in the standard course of well-baby shots. In addition, children under 5 who attend day care or are Native American or black should get the vaccine, too.

"The take-home message here is prevention," says lead researcher Katherine A. Robinson, MPH. "With the rise of antibiotic resistant pneumococcus over the past 10 years, and the fact that we're looking at 60,000 cases per year, we want to use this vaccine." Robinson is an epidemiologist at the respiratory diseases branch of the National Center for Infectious Disease at the CDC in Atlanta.

"Physicians aren't immunizing people the way they should, so I would definitely encourage patients to take an active role in asking about this vaccine," Robinson says.

You may even be able to get vaccinated for free. "Medicare covers the cost for all Medicare patients, and private insurance increasingly covers it for people under age 65. Getting this shot is so simple and cost-effective," says William Golden, MD, medical director for quality improvement at the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care at Fort Smith, Ark., and professor of medicine at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine in Little Rock.


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