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The 411 on the pneumonia vaccine


You can feel it beginning to bear down on your body, typically in the form of symptoms like fatigue, fever, trouble breathing, and chest congestion. Before long, the misery worsens and pneumonia has you in its grips. In some individuals, the lung infection can last one to three weeks. In others, it can be deadly. 

Pneumonia hospitalizes nearly half a million Americans each year. Of those, over three-thousand die from it. The good news is that the illness can be largely prevented. But the recommended vaccination guidelines aren’t being followed by everyone. 

When should I receive the pneumonia vaccine?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), all adults over the age of 65 should be vaccinated against pneumonia. But in 2015, only 64% received the vaccine, and only 23% of high-risk adults ages 19-64 were vaccinated. 

“It’s really complicated,” says Kira Beaulac, PharmD, a pharmacist with advanced training in infectious diseases and antimicrobials at Tufts Medical Center. “There’s some confusion even by doctors over who to vaccinate and when.” 

In the past, children had traditionally been given Prevnar, which provides a stronger immunologic response, while adults were vaccinated with Pneumovax, a vaccine that covers twenty-three different types of the bacteria. After much study, in 2014 the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices determined that adults should be given both vaccines for maximum protection. 

As the guidelines stand now, older adults should receive the Prevnar vaccine first, followed by the Pneumovax vaccine twelve months later.

Research about pneumonia

But research shows some doctors continue to be confused. In a survey of primary care physicians published in a 2018 issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, only half said the current recommendations are “very clear,” and only 21% knew the correct time interval the vaccines should be given. 

“Superficially it seems simple, but it gets complicated if someone receives a vaccine early due to high-risk, or if they get they get vaccines out of order,” explains Beaulac.

The survey suggests alerts added to electronic medical records to remind doctors of when a patient is due for the vaccination may be a possible solution to reduce confusion. 

It’s too early to tell whether the vaccine combo has decreased rates of pneumonia. Despite this, Beaulac says getting vaccinated is a no brainer.

“It can prevent major disease, and potentially save your life,” she explains.