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Pneumonia: what you need to know

Pneumococcal pneumonia affects approximately 900,000 Americans each year; 50% of these individuals wind up in the hospital and between 5% and 7% of infected individuals die each year in the US
Pneumococcal pneumonia affects approximately 900,000 Americans each year; 50% of these individuals wind up in the hospital and between 5% and 7% of infected individuals die each year in the US
Robin Wulffson, MD

Most people are aware that pneumonia is a type of lung infection; however, according to Litjen Tan, MS, PhD many misconceptions exist regarding its cause and prevention. Dr, Tan is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Immunization Action Coalition (IAC). He is leading the IAC's new strategic direction on national immunization advocacy and policy development.

Dr. Tan notes that one common type, pneumococcal pneumonia, is caused by the pneumococcus bacteria that live in the upper respiratory system. This type of pneumonia affects approximately 900,000 Americans each year; 50% of these individuals wind up in the hospital and between 5% and 7% of infected individuals die each year in the US. People age 50 and above are at an increasing risk for pneumococcal pneumonia because their immune systems is less capable of protecting them from illnesses as they age. In addition, smokers, immunocompromised individuals, and those with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, are more susceptible to serious illnesses such as pneumococcal pneumonia. Unlike influenza, which is a seasonal infection, pneumococcal pneumonia can occur at any time of the year.

Dr. Tan notes that the best strategy is prevention. The risk of infection can be reduced by practice such as good hygiene, regular hand washing, and immunization. Immunization is particularly important because a good percentage of pneumococci infections are resistant to antibiotics; thus, immunization reduces the risk of acquiring an infection that is hard to treat; thus, more likely to kill you. Pneumococcus vaccines have an excellent safety record and major side-effects are extremely rare. As with most vaccines, pneumococcus vaccines are not 100% effective; it varies from 40-85% depending on the population. However, Dr. Tan notes that even a 40% effective rate is far better than not being vaccinated at all.

Dr. Tan explained that the vaccine is commonly given to children and people over age 50. One group that usually does not receive vaccination is younger adults; however, some of these individuals may have an increased susceptibility and should be vaccinated. Dr. Tan suggests that people should discuss vaccination at their next health checkup. Your physician can determine whether you need a vaccination, the type of vaccination to receive, and whether you are due for a booster. He recommends this link for further information.

Dr. Tan received his PhD in Immunology/Microbiology from Northwestern University Medical School, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Molecular Immunology at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He was recently elected onto the National Quality Forum’s Adult Immunizations Expert Committee, onto the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases Vaccine Study Group (EVASG), and serves as an editor for BMC Infectious Diseases and for Medscape Infectious Diseases.