Expert Q&A

Pneumococcal disease is a serious and deadly infection, but most people know very little about it. We’ve assembled a panel of experts to answer common questions about pneumococcal disease. Select a question below to learn more.

What causes pneumococcal disease?

Answered by:

Richard Kent Zimmerman, MD, MPH, MA University of Pittsburgh

“The potential suffering from pneumococcal disease includes limb loss and substantial trouble breathing whereas the vaccine side effects are typically minor local reactions, like soreness at the injection site.”

Answer:

The disease is caused by the “pneumococcus,” a type of bacteria that causes a variety of infections at various sites in the body including the ears, sinuses, lungs and blood stream.

How many people get it?

Answered by:

Thomas M. File Jr., MD, MS President, NFID

“The risk of mortality of a patient admitted to the ICU with pneumococcal pneumonia is greater than that of a typical patient admitted to the coronary care unit with a heart attack!”

Answer:

Literally millions of Americans are infected with pneumococcus annually. We actually don’t know the total number since it is so large and includes infections that are relatively mild (such as sinus and ear infections) as well as severe ones like pneumonia, blood infection and meningitis, where the death rate can be more than 30 percent.

Can it be cured?

Answered by:

Thomas M. File Jr., MD, MS President, NFID

“The risk of mortality of a patient admitted to the ICU with pneumococcal pneumonia is greater than that of a typical patient admitted to the coronary care unit with a heart attack!”

Answer:

Yes, most cases can be cured with appropriate antibiotics if they’re given in a timely manner. However, it is very important to know that even with appropriate antibiotic therapy, the mortality rate can be high in patients who are elderly or have underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or chronic lung disease. This is why it is so much better to prevent the infection if possible rather than waiting to treat it.

What can happen if I get it?

Answered by:

Mark Metersky, MD University of Connecticut Health Center

“I'm committed to helping reduce pneumococcal disease among adults in the U.S. because over the years, I have seen too many lives cut short by pneumococcal disease.”

Answer:

Pneumococcus can cause serious infections. The most common is “pneumococcal” pneumonia, which is the most common type of severe pneumonia. Another serious manifestation of pneumococcal disease is meningitis, an infection of the lining of the brain. More common types of pneumococcal infection include sinusitis and bronchitis.

Can I die from pneumococcal disease?

Answered by:

Mark Metersky, MD University of Connecticut Health Center

“I'm committed to helping reduce pneumococcal disease among adults in the U.S. because over the years, I have seen too many lives cut short by pneumococcal disease.”

Answer:

Yes, pneumococcal disease causes thousands of deaths in the United States each year.

How do people catch pneumococcal disease? Are there places or people to avoid?

Answered by:

Robert H. Hopkins Jr., MD University of Arkansas

“Pneumococcal infections have been a burden to adults and children for many generations, causing hospitalization and or death in tens of thousands in this country every year. We need to use the tools we have available — like vaccination, increased hand-washing and only using antibiotics when they’re appropriate — to keep our society healthier.”

Answer:

Pneumococcal disease is caused by the “pneumococcus,” a germ that is present in the airways of many people. It is spread by coughs, sneezes and other respiratory secretions. Pneumococcal bacteria may also live for a short time on surfaces. These bacteria, along with many others, are particularly common in areas where people — particularly small children — are in close quarters with one another. Daycare centers, schools and long-term care facilities are places where there would be a higher risk of getting pneumococcal disease.

Can I give it to my grandparents or the kids in my family?

Answered by:

Carol J. Baker, MD Baylor College of Medicine

“Pneumococcal disease among adults in the U.S. is the number one cause of serious pneumonia and has been associated in adults 65 years or age and older with an increased risk for heart attacks.”

Answer:

Yes, pneumococcal infection can be spread to anyone who is not immune to it. The best way to protect yourself and those around you is to make sure everyone in your family is vaccinated according to the recommended schedule. This includes young children less than age 6 years, people 65 years and older, and those with certain risk conditions.

What are the symptoms?

Answered by:

Richard Kent Zimmerman, MD, MPH, MA University of Pittsburgh

“The potential suffering from pneumococcal disease includes limb loss and substantial trouble breathing whereas the vaccine side effects are typically minor local reactions, like soreness at the injection site.”

Answer:

The symptoms of pneumococcal disease vary by which parts of the body are infected. If the lungs are infected, fever, chills, sweats, shortness of breath, coughing and chest pain may occur.

Who can get pneumococcal disease?

Answered by:

Robert H. Hopkins Jr., MD University of Arkansas

“Pneumococcal infections have been a burden to adults and children for many generations, causing hospitalization and or death in tens of thousands in this country every year. We need to use the tools we have available — like vaccination, increased hand-washing and only using antibiotics when they’re appropriate — to keep our society healthier.”

Answer:

Anyone can get a pneumococcal infection; but severe infections are more likely in very young children, older adults and persons who have chronic health conditions.

Are there any racial or ethnic groups at particular risk for pneumococcal disease?

Answered by:

Richard Kent Zimmerman, MD, MPH, MA University of Pittsburgh

“The potential suffering from pneumococcal disease includes limb loss and substantial trouble breathing whereas the vaccine side effects are typically minor local reactions, like soreness at the injection site.”

Answer:

Pneumococcal disease can strike anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. However, some racial and ethnic groups have lower vaccination coverage rates. For example, in those age 65 years and older, the vaccination coverage rate is higher in whites compared with blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. In adults age 19 to 64 years with risk conditions, the coverage rates in whites and blacks are similar, but both are higher than rates in Hispanics and Asians. Some risk factors are more common in certain racial and ethnic groups, putting them at greater risk for serious consequences if they get pneumococcal disease. For example, diabetes is much more common in blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, and Alaska Natives compared with whites.

How can I avoid getting pneumococcal disease?

Answered by:

Kristin L. Nichol, MD, MPH, MBA University of Minnesota

“Pneumococcal disease can cause serious illness and even death. We have safe vaccines that work. If you are in one of the high priority target groups, then I strongly recommend vaccination for you.”

Answer:

Pneumococcal diseases can cause serious illness and even death. Especially serious forms of the disease are pneumonia, bloodstream infections (bacteremia), and infections of the lining of the brain (meningitis). The best way to prevent these serious forms of pneumococcal disease is through vaccination.

Do the vaccines work?

Answered by:

Kristin L. Nichol, MD, MPH, MBA University of Minnesota

“Pneumococcal disease can cause serious illness and even death. We have safe vaccines that work. If you are in one of the high priority target groups, then I strongly recommend vaccination for you.”

Answer:

There are two vaccines for pneumococcal disease used in the US. Both are effective and safe. In adults age 65 years and older, pneumococcal vaccination has been shown to reduce the risk of pneumonia caused by the types included in the vaccine by 45 percent and the risk of meningitis and bloodstream infection by 75 percent.[http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6337a4.htm?s_cid=mm6337a4_w] In young children, widespread immunization against pneumococcal disease has reduced cases by more than 99 percent in children and has also led to fewer infections in other age groups.

Aren’t vaccines just for kids?

Answered by:

Carol J. Baker, MD Baylor College of Medicine

“Pneumococcal disease among adults in the U.S. is the number one cause of serious pneumonia and has been associated in adults 65 years or age and older with an increased risk for heart attacks.”

Answer:

Vaccines for infants and children are important and sometimes life-saving. But vaccine-preventable infections affect even healthy adolescents and adults. Prime examples are influenza; pneumococcal disease, which causes moderate to severe pneumonia and other serious infections; and pertussis or whooping cough, which has been on the rise in the US and is currently causing an epidemic in California. These three infections not only are capable of causing diseases that can be spread to more vulnerable people like very young infants who often are hospitalized or may even die (influenza and whooping cough), but these infections have also been associated with heart attacks (influenza and pneumococcus) in adults age 65 years and older. Vaccines are for everyone.

Who should be vaccinated against pneumococcal disease?

Answered by:

William Schaffner, MD Past-President, NFID

“If I had one thing to say to a patient about the seriousness of pneumococcal disease and the importance of prevention, it would be... just do it. Pneumonia can kill — vaccination is both effective and safe.”

Answer:

Everyone 65 and older should be vaccinated against pneumococcal disease. Folks who are younger than age 65 should get vaccinated if they fall into one of the groups with increased risk of serious pneumococcal infection: chronic lung disease (including asthma), heart disease, diabetes, chronic liver disease, alcoholism, sickle cell disease, persons who have lost their spleen, any immunocompromising condition, chronic kidney disease, or if a patient has a cochlear implant or a cerebrospinal fluid leak. In addition, everyone who smokes cigarettes should receive pneumococcal vaccination.

How often do I need to get vaccinated?

Answered by:

William Schaffner, MD Past-President, NFID

“If I had one thing to say to a patient about the seriousness of pneumococcal disease and the importance of prevention, it would be... just do it. Pneumonia can kill — vaccination is both effective and safe.”

Answer:

The number of doses and timing of pneumococcal vaccines varies based on your age and risk factors. The best way to determine what’s right for you is to talk to your healthcare professional. If you are age 65 years or older, or between the ages of 19 and 64 years and have risk conditions such as heart, lung, or liver disease, diabetes, kidney problems, etc., talk to your healthcare professional as soon as possible and get vaccinated. 

I already got the vaccine. Do I need another?

Answered by:

William Schaffner, MD Past-President, NFID

“If I had one thing to say to a patient about the seriousness of pneumococcal disease and the importance of prevention, it would be... just do it. Pneumonia can kill — vaccination is both effective and safe.”

Answer:

In some cases, yes. In 2013 and 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  made some new recommendations for pneumococcal vaccination in people age 65 years and older, and in adults age 19 to 64 years with immune system problems. The number and timing of pneumococcal vaccines varies based on your age and risk factors. The best way to determine what’s right for you is to talk to your healthcare professional.

How do I know they're safe? Is it possible to get the disease from the vaccines?

Answered by:

Kristin L. Nichol, MD, MPH, MBA University of Minnesota

“Pneumococcal disease can cause serious illness and even death. We have safe vaccines that work. If you are in one of the high priority target groups, then I strongly recommend vaccination for you.”

Answer:

Vaccines are tested very thoroughly in clinical trials before they are approved. In addition, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a national vaccine safety surveillance program sponsored by the CDC and FDA, continually monitors the safety of vaccines over many years. Both types of pneumococcal vaccine used in the US have been tested extensively and administered safely to many millions of people in the US.

I was vaccinated for pneumococcal disease, but I still got pneumonia. Does that mean
the vaccine didn’t work?

Answered by:

Kristin L. Nichol, MD, MPH, MBA University of Minnesota

“Pneumococcal disease can cause serious illness and even death. We have safe vaccines that works. If you are in one of the high priority target groups, then I strongly recommend vaccination for you.”

Answer:

No, it doesn’t. Pneumonia can be caused by many other types of organisms besides the pneumococcal organism, and the vaccine doesn’t work against those other types of bacteria. Secondly, the vaccine that has been used in adults for many years protects against 23 types of pneumococcal organisms that are responsible for most infections, but there are other types not covered by the vaccine. More recently, a different type of pneumococcal vaccine (a conjugate vaccine) has been recommended for adults who are age 65 years and older or who are age 19 to 64 years but have risk factors like heart, liver, or lung disease, diabetes, or immune compromising conditions. Together, the two vaccines recommended for adults in the US will greatly reduce the risk of pneumococcal pneumonia, meningitis, and bloodstream infections.

My doctor said I should also get an annual flu shot. Why do I need both vaccines?

Answered by:

William Schaffner, MD Past-President, NFID

“If I had one thing to say to a patient about the seriousness of pneumococcal disease and the importance of prevention, it would be... just do it. Pneumonia can kill — vaccination is both effective and safe.”

Answer:

Influenza and pneumococcal vaccines protect against two different diseases, both of which can cause serious, life-threatening illnesses and both diseases involve the lungs.

Influenza is the winter virus that can affect even healthy people, causing an illness that is so severe it can result in hospitalization.

The pneumococcus is a germ that can cause pneumonia and other infections such as in the bloodstream (bacteremia) and lining of the brain (meningitis). It is especially good at causing pneumonia as a complication of influenza infection. So you can understand why it is so important to be vaccinated to get protection against both influenza and the pneumococcus. Both vaccines are very safe.

How much does the vaccine cost?

Answered by:

Kristin L. Nichol, MD, MPH, MBA University of Minnesota

“Pneumococcal disease can cause serious illness and even death. We have a safe vaccine that works. If you are in one of the high priority target groups, then I strongly recommend vaccination for you.”

Answer:

One pneumococcal vaccination, as well as influenza and hepatitis B vaccinations are fully paid for by Medicare Part B if your healthcare provider accepts the Medicare-approved payment. 

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Pneumococcal Disease