With all the talk about the flu vaccine at this time of year it is also a good time to consider another important vaccine, the pneumococcal vaccine, or pneumovax, which protects the elderly against bacteria commonly referred to as "pneumococcus." According to Ruth Kandel, M.D., a geriatrician who specializes in infection control at Hebrew SeniorLife, pneumococcal disease can cause infections in the lung (pneumonia) as well as more invasive diseases when it invades the blood (bacteremia) or the covering of the brain (meningitis).
Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but all adults 65 years of age and older are at increased risk for serious infection. Other high-risk groups include young children and individuals of any age with certain chronic medical conditions (heart disease, diabetes, sickle cell disease, and conditions or treatments that lower one’s resistance to infections). Alcoholism and cigarette smoking are also considered risk factors.
Antibiotics, such as penicillin, can be used to treat these infections. However, in recent years some of the bacteria have become resistant to commonly used antibiotics. This is why vaccination, which provides protection against infection, is so important.
The good news about pneumovax is that in most adults it need only be administered once. So if you are 65 years of age or older you only need to get the vaccine one time. If you received the vaccine when you were younger than age 65, you will need to have a single revaccination five years or more after that first dose. A few other high-risk groups such as immune-compromised individuals may also benefit from a single revaccination.
The pneumovax is the best way to prevent both infection from pneumococcal bacteria as well as complications, including hospitalization and even death. But it will only work if you get it. Please ask your health care provider about this important vaccine.