At-risk urged to get free vaccine

One in 10 Australians aged over 65 who are hospitalised with pneumonia die from the “killer lung infection”, according to an article in MJA Insight.

The research has prompted Lung Foundation Australia to issue an urgent plea for all at-risk adults to be vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia.

According to article author, renowned infectious diseases paediatrician and Immunisation Coalition chairperson, Professor Robert Booy, most people carry the pneumococcal pneumonia-causing bacteria in their throat.

“All it takes is a simple lung or flu infection, particularly in those at risk (people aged over 65 and those with medical and lifestyle risk factors), to wake the ‘sleeping dragon’ and develop into a life-threatening case of pneumonia,” he said.

“We are experiencing a big flu season, with more than 44,200 already confirmed cases of the virus this year.

“Flu often develops into pneumonia. Although older Australians are increasingly having an annual flu shot, only one-in-two are vaccinating against pneumococcal pneumonia, leaving them vulnerable to the killer lung infection.”

Pneumonia is contracted by inhaling infected droplets in the air from someone who has coughed or sneezed. The infection results in more than 77,000 hospitalisations and 4000 deaths in Australia each year, the Lung Foundation reports in Pneumonia Awareness Week.

GPs offer free pneumococcal vaccines to those at highest risk of the infection, including over-65s, infants, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, those with impaired immunity, chronic smokers and people with chronic illnesses such as heart, lung, kidney and liver disease, and diabetes.

“Flu and pneumococcal pneumonia vaccinations can be given together, to offer at-risk adults the best protection against infection,” said Dr Sarah Chu, a GP and Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) fellow.

“Pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae. The adult pneumococcal vaccination protects against the 23 variations of this bacteria responsible for 85 per cent of adult pneumococcal infections in Australia.

“The lung infection can hit anyone, at any time. So when you next visit your GP, ask your doctor whether you qualify for a free pneumococcal vaccination,” Dr Chu said.

Retired bookkeeper and regular gym goer, Glenys, 66, has told her story for Pneumonia Awareness Week. She was struck down by pneumonia during a holiday to New Zealand, was hospitalised for three days and spent a month recovering. She has since been diagnosed with the irreversible lung condition, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which places her at heightened risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia. She has therefore been vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia to prevent re-infection.

Lung Foundation Australia chief Mark Brooke said pneumonia symptoms included fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and often came on quite rapidly or over one to three days.

“If you notice any of these symptoms, it is important that you see your doctor straight away,” he said.

Are you at risk of pneumonia? Have you had the vaccine?

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Written by Janelle Ward

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