Urgent community plea to reverse declining vaccination rates against fatal lung infection this Pneumonia Awareness Week

Lung Foundation Australia is teaming with researchers, doctors and patients Australia-wide today, during Pneumonia Awareness Week (13-20 May), to call for proactive community action to address the declining vaccination rates against pneumococcal pneumonia – an infection responsible for more than 15,000 GP visits, 8,000 hospitalisations, and 2,000 deaths among those aged over 65 each year.

Their call coincides with an article published in MJA Insight today by UNSW Vaccine and Infection Research Lab (VIRL) researchers, Sydney, urging governments and doctors to work harder to reinforce the public health message regarding the seriousness of the potentially life-threatening, but preventable infection, pneumococcal pneumonia.

The article reveals pneumonia ends lives prematurely, even in wealthy countries today with access to the best health care. It also reinforces that the main tools to prevent the most common cause of pneumonia – streptococcus pneumoniae, responsible for an estimated 20 per cent of pneumonia cases in Australia – are vaccines.

According to article co-author and infectious diseases researcher, Dr Rob Menzies, UNSW VIRL, Sydney, a healthcare professional’s recommendation to vaccinate, or otherwise, is the most influential factor determining whether a person chooses to protect against vaccine preventable infections.

“We’re achieving a 93 per cent pneumococcal vaccination rate among Australian children. Yet we’re failing to achieve even a 50 per cent pneumococcal vaccination rate among equally vulnerable seniors, despite the publicly-funded immunisation program – a simple preventative health measure that could prevent serious disease or premature death.

“The most recent data suggest pneumococcal vaccination coverage has actually declined to 47 per cent in NSW, with more than half of these vaccinations occurring after 70 years of age,” said Dr Menzies.

“This decline must be urgently reversed. Doctors should be looking to opportunistically vaccinate those at risk of pneumococcal pneumonia (including people aged 65 and over, the immunocompromised and Indigenous Australians) in the same way they do for other population-based programs.

“It is also important for individuals to take the initiative for their own health. Anyone who smokes, has a chronic disease, immunocompromising condition, or is aged 65 years or over should talk to their GP about whether they should have a pneumococcal vaccination, or a re-vaccination against the infection,” Dr Menzies said.

Associate Professor Lucy Morgan, Specialist Respiratory Physician and Lung Foundation Australia Respiratory Infectious Disease Committee Chair, Sydney, says all adults aged 65 years and over are at increased risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia due to their age alone, and many more have existing chronic medical conditions or lifestyle factors, such as current or past smoking, that places them at heightened risk of infection.

“Importantly, the MJA Insight article reinforces the importance of vaccination against pneumococcal pneumonia as a preventative health strategy from the age of 65, rather than delaying vaccination for a number of years.

“Given pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening respiratory infection, should an individual develop a cough, fever, shortness of breath, and feel generally tired and unwell, they should head to their doctor without delay,” said A/Prof Morgan.

Academic and grandmother-to-five, Jane, 67, Sydney, was first diagnosed with pneumonia in 2006. In the ensuing decade, Jane has experienced multiple episodes of pneumonia which have frequently rendered her hospitalised for days. The infection has taken a significant physical, emotional and financial toll on Jane. Her physical ability is nowadays limited due to the difficulty she experiences with simply “breathing”.

“I’ll usually wake up at three or four o’clock in the morning struggling to breathe. By that stage, I will know whether I’m able to get myself to hospital, or whether I will need to call an ambulance. What follows is usually admission to hospital, stabilisation of my condition, treatment with antibiotics and more steroids, and then eventual discharge. The whole process takes around one week, and it’s exhausting. When I come home from hospital, I barely have the energy to have a shower, and it takes weeks to recover,” Jane said.

“There have been various occasions during these episodes, when I thought I might die.”

Despite the adversity she has faced, Jane remains staunchly upbeat, and has a strong message for Australians at-risk of pneumococcal infection.

“All Australians aged over 65, and those living with chronic medical conditions, should protect themselves against the potentially life-threatening, but preventable infection, pneumococcal pneumonia. Everyone should get immunised.”

Lung Foundation Australia CEO, Heather Allan, said this year Pneumonia Awareness Week aims to encourage all Australians, particularly those at high risk, to recognise that pneumococcal pneumonia is potentially life-threatening, and to take appropriate steps to protect against the infection.

“Lung Foundation Australia is teaming with public health researchers, doctors and patients this Pneumonia Awareness Week to call for proactive community protection against pneumococcal pneumonia, particularly in the lead up to winter.

“Pneumonia-like illness is among of the top 15 contributing causes of deaths in Australia and your risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia increases with age. This serious respiratory infection is, however, preventable,” Ms Allan said.

“Symptoms of pneumonia such as chest pain, coughing, fatigue and difficulty breathing, can require hospitalisation so Lung Foundation Australia is urging at risk Australians to take steps to protect themselves through vaccination, as well as to remember the importance of home and hand hygiene.”

The pneumococcal vaccine is provided free under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) Schedule for all Australians aged 65 and above, Indigenous Australians aged 50 years and over, Indigenous Australians aged 15 to 49 years who are medically at risk, and infants under 12 months. A second dose of vaccine is also available to Australians with immunocompromising conditions or chronic disease, or smokers, a minimum of five years following their first dose.

The vaccine is also available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), and the NIP in some States, for all adults aged 18 years or over, who are smokers or medically at risk, such as those with chronic lung, heart or liver disease or diabetes.

For more information about Pneumonia Awareness Week, visit www.lungfoundation.com.au/pneumonia or call Lung Foundation Australia on 1800 654 301.

About pneumonia, pneumococcal pneumonia & vaccination

Pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening infection that affects the lungs. Pneumonia causes the small air sacs of the lungs to fill with pus and fluid, making breathing painful, causing cough, and limiting oxygen intake. Pneumonia may be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi. Pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, is the only bacterial pneumonia for which vaccination is available. You can take steps to protect yourself against pneumococcal pneumonia by practicing good hand hygiene, making your life a smoke-free zone and having the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination.

About Lung Foundation Australia

Lung Foundation Australia is the only national charity supporting anyone with a lung disease. Since 1990, the charity has been the national first point-of-call for patients and their families, carers, health professionals and the general community. Their mission is to improve lung health and reduce the impact of lung disease for all Australians by driving world class research; promoting lung health and timely diagnosis of lung disease, providing clinical support and education, and promoting equitable access to evidence-based care.

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