Pneumococcal Vaccine

Sep 1, 2021

Just as we were on the cusp of normal, the Delta variant is showing us just how virulent COVID-19 is.  Here we are again wearing masks indoors and taking all necessary precautions.  The vaccines are proving effective in lessening symptoms and preventing hospitalizations and death in breakout cases.

COVID-19 took a toll on minority populations  and it also attacked the elderly with a vengeance, putting those who had and have underlying lung conditions at an even higher risk. 

For nearly 50 years, SeniorCare has coordinated services to elders in nine communities on Boston’s North Shore.  The past 15 months have had an unprecedented effect on older adults in our region and throughout the nation.   It is well known that older adults were among those at significantly higher rates of illness and death due to COVID-19.  A secondary effect has been social isolation; before vaccinations became available many older adults had to forgo seeing family and friends, participating in recreational and social activities and even shopping.  At SeniorCare, we experienced a 40% increase in the number of nutritious meals we provide to older adults.  The availability of COVID-19 vaccines has begun to reopen possibilities. 

There is another vaccine that can help older adults stay healthy; the pneumococcal vaccine.  It’s highly effective against a disease that is the leading cause of serious illness worldwide and it’s one of the best precautions people over the age of 65 can, and should, take.

The more protected we are against pneumonia the better chance we have at surviving not just that disease, but also viruses such as COVID, which preys on those who have lung health issues. 

Currently there are two such vaccines in the market.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved two newer ones that protect against even more strains than the first two.  But the newer vaccines aren’t available yet because they are awaiting a decision by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices or ACIP.  ACIP recommendations play a critical role in the availability and insurance coverage of all vaccinations. 

Advocacy groups from across the country are imploring the CDC to look at its own data showing that these newer treatments will save lives, are cost-effective and can help impact existing health disparities. 

But, unfortunately, a vote on these new, more effective pneumococcal vaccines isn’t expected until October.  We can’t wait until then.  There are millions of older or health-compromised Americans in Massachusetts and across the country, who are living with chronic conditions that make them more susceptible to pneumonia.  October is simply too far way.

We need ACIP to act faster so that these newer vaccines are available before the next flu and pneumonia season are here. 

Those who are susceptible to pneumonia–including older people–often suffer debilitating consequences.  There are approximately 90 strains or serotypes of the disease.  The current vaccines cover roughly 40 of those, but the new vaccines will increase the number of strains that are covered, thereby offering greater protection to those who are vaccinated.

About 1.3 million people visit emergency departments in the US each year with pneumonia, which is often caused by pneumococcal infections.  And nearly 50,000 people will die from it.

There has never has it been more urgent moment in recent history where vaccination status and availability should be a top priority.

A recent study published by Kaiser Permanente found that older adults who had received one of the two available pneumococcal vaccines were diagnosed with COVID-19 less often.  The study also found roughly 30% of those who had been vaccinated had lower incidence of COVID-19 diagnoses, hospitalization, and death.

COVID-19 highlighted the need to focus on lung health making pneumococcal vaccines even more relevant.

The new pneumococcal vaccines are safe, and they are effective, as evidenced by the FDA’s approval.   And we need to get them into arms as soon as possible.  There’s no time to waste.

Linnea Hagberg is the Director of Community Programs and Planning at SeniorCare Inc., a consumer centered organization, providing and coordinating services to elders and others, enabling them to live independently at home or in a setting of their choice while remaining part of their community.  She is also a Registered Dietitian.