Ellen Carlson, right, gets her annual flu shot from nurse Wendy Bower at the offices of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association in Steamboat Springs.

File photo

Ellen Carlson, right, gets her annual flu shot from nurse Wendy Bower at the offices of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association in Steamboat Springs.

Monday Medical: Pneumococcal vaccine protects against disease

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"Pneumococcal" is not exactly a household word. "Pneumonia," "meningitis" and "sinus infection" certainly are more commonly known. What do these three diseases have in common, and what is their connection with that strange-sounding word?

They are various forms of pneumococcal disease, which is a leading cause of serious illness for children and adults throughout the world.

"We typically see one or two life-threatening cases of pneumococcal disease each year here in Steamboat Springs," explained Mark McCaulley, MD, an internal medicine physician at Yampa Valley Medical Associates.

"Most people probably do not realize that the majority of sinus, ear and respiratory infections can be linked directly to pneuomococcal disease."

The disease is caused by a common bacterium, the pneumococcus, which attacks various parts of the body. Pneumococcus is found in the nose and throat and is spread by coughing, sneezing or touching respiratory secretions.

When the lungs are invaded, we usually see pneumonia. When the bacteria invade the bloodstream, they cause bacteremia; when they invade the covering of the brain, they cause meningitis.

These pneumococcus bacteria also can cause middle ear infection (otitis media) and sinus infection (sinusitis).

The best way to prevent pneumococcal disease is through vaccination. The vaccine is considered clinically safe and effective. Currently, the vaccine protects against 23 of the most common types of pneumococcal disease.

"Getting vaccinated is very important for prevention of disease, and I recommend it highly," McCaulley said. "When I see that someone has received the recommended vaccinations for their age and condition, that is a sign to me that they are receiving good medical care. Most patients have very mild side effects from the vaccine."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes the following recommendations for who should get the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine:

- Everyone older than 2 years old with a serious long-term health condition, such as heart disease, sickle cell disease, alcoholism, leaks of cerebrospinal fluid, lung disease (not including asthma), diabetes or liver cirrhosis.

- Residents of chronic care or long-term facilities.

- Alaskan Natives and certain Native American populations.

- Those whose resistance to infection is lowered because of Hodgkin's disease; multiple myeloma; cancer treatment with x-rays or drugs; treatment with long-term steroids; bone marrow or organ transplant; kidney failure; HIV/AIDS; lymphoma, leukemia, or other cancers; nephrotic syndrome; damaged spleen or no spleen.

Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended for all children between the ages of 2 to 23 months. In this age group, the conjugate vaccine is part of the childhood immunization schedule followed by healthcare providers.

Children ages 2 to 5 years who have any of the conditions listed above or who attend a group day care center also should receive the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.

Adults can get the pneumococcal vaccine any time of the year. However, the easiest time to remember getting it is when you get your annual flu shot in the fall months.

For most adults who are vaccinated at age 65 or older, the pneumococcal vaccine is necessary just once in a lifetime. For those adults who have received the vaccine before age 65, revaccination may be necessary. Check with your healthcare provider for an appropriate schedule.

Lisa Bankard coordinates the Wellness and Community Education programs at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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