While older adults are often naturally immune to diseases that used to be common, such as measles and mumps, there are other diseases that people over age 65 should be be vaccinated against in order to be protected. One of these diseases is pneumococcal disease.
When we talk about pneumococcal disease, we're really referring to a number of different infections caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia. This bacteria causes a host of diseases ranging from mild ear infections to deadly infections of the brain (meningitis) and bloodstream (bacteremia). In addition, Streptococcus pneumonia is the most common cause of community-acquired bacterial pneumonia (lung infection) among adults over age 65. This type of community-acquired pneumonia (as opposed to hospital-acquired) is the 5th leading cause of death for adults in this age group. Of perhaps even greater concern is the fact that seniors who do survive bacterial pneumonia have higher-than-normal mortality rates for the next several years.
Thankfully, there are not one, but two, vaccines that can prevent the serious complications of pneumococcal infection, and the CDC now recommends that older adults get both of them. The first, called Pneumovax 23, has long been recommended by the CDC for people age 50 and older. This vaccine is effective at preventing severe complications of pneumococcal pneumonia, but has not been proven successful at preventing pneumonia itself. For added protection, the CDC now urges older adults to get vaccinated with Prevnar 13, a different form of pneumococcal vaccine that has been given to young children since roughly 2010. This second vaccine has been shown to provide substantial extra protection for older adults, and it has also been shown to be quite safe for most people. Medicare now covers the cost of both vaccines.
As always, you should talk to your health care provider about whether the recommended schedule of vaccines is right for you. But in general, this is how the CDC’s recommendation works:
- If you are over age 65, and have never been vaccinated against pneumonia—or don’t know whether you have—you should receive the Prevnar 13 vaccine as soon as possible. You should get a follow-up shot of Pneumovax 23 at least 12 months later.
- If you are over age 64 and received the Pneumovax 23 vaccine more than one year ago, you should speak with your health care provider about getting Prevnar 13 as soon as possible.
- If you are between the ages of 19 and 64 and are immune-compromised or otherwise at high risk of pneumococcal infection you should speak with your health care provider about getting one or both pneumococcal vaccines.
It's very important to make sure you’re protected against pneumococcal infection, not just for your own health but for the greater good. As more people get vaccinated, there is less appearance of the bacteria in the community. And that means everyone has a better chance of staying healthy.