Why should you Canadian seniors get vaccinated for pneumonia?

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The question

I recently turned 65 and went to my family doctor for a checkup. She said I should get vaccination to protect me from pneumonia. I consider myself to be a relatively fit senior. Why would I need a pneumonia shot?

The answer

Your immune system becomes less efficient as you grow older. That means you become more susceptible to infection from Streptococcus pneumoniae, bacteria that normally live in your body.

The type of bacteria can exist in the nose and throat – without causing any ill effects most of the time. But among the sensitive individuals, the germs can invade the lower parts of the lung, resulting in pneumonia and difficulty breathing. The illness often leads to hospitalization and may be deadly.

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The infection, which causes most bacterial pneumonia cases, is preventable with a vaccination. The Public Health Agency of Canada urges everyone over 65 to get a pneumonia shot and it has a national target of inoculating 80 per cent of people within this age group.

It also makes them vulnerable to catching the lung infection.

"But the rate of vaccination against pneumonia in older Canadians is only about 42 per cent, compared to over 80 per cent in children," says Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health System and the University Health Network in Toronto.

"It´s deeply ingrained into us thinking that need children vaccinations. However, vaccines are actually going through this message. "

To make matters worse, "we don''t take the threat of pneumonia as seriously as we should," adds Sinha, who co-authored a report on pneumonia in older Canadians recently published by the National Institute on Aging at Ryerson University.

And yet it´s one of the major causes of hospitalizations and accounted for 135,000 visits to Canadian emergency departments last year. Pneumonia ends up killing more than 6,000 Canadians a year – and 88 per cent of these deaths are among seniors.

"Pneumonia can be nasty – it makes you feel terrible," says Sinha. Some strains of the bacteria are incredibly invasive. The germs can spread beyond the lungs into the bloodstream and nervous system. In certain cases, leads to meningitis, inflammation of the lining around the brain.

Pneumonia not only the body body – it can undermine mental health, too.

Dr. Jerome Leis, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto says Dr. Jerome Leis, medical director for infection prevention and control.

And for those who are hospitalized, they may find themselves at an elevated risk of other complications. For instance, they might lose their mobility, pick up other infections, or an existing health condition may get worse.

"A common scenario is that pneumonia precipitates another major health problem," notes Leis.

“The level of physical and cognitive functioning of a senior can change dramatically. "He explains. Some may be forced to move into a nursing home."

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"Pneumonia can be a life-changing event for many people."

The risk of pneumonia is even higher among people who develop flu, commonly known as the flu.

Influenza can damage the respiratory system and lead to a buildup of mucus in the airways. When this happens, there is a heightened chance that bacteria will move to the lower parts of the lung, where the germs can cause full-blown pneumonia.

That is one reason why older adults are encouraged to get an annual flu shot in addition to the pneumonia vaccine. And while having a flu shot, most healthy adults normally need just one pneumonia vaccination.

In order to encourage greater uptake of pneumonia vaccine, all the provinces and territories cover the cost of the shot for seniors and young children.

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"There is a huge underestimation of the seriousness of pneumonia – especially for older adults – and that's something that absolutely needs to change," says Sinha.

So, when your family doctor recommends that you get pneumonia inoculation, it’s advice that’s worth heeding.

Paul Taylor is a patient navigation adviser at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center. He is a former health editor of The Globe and Mail. Find him on Twitter @epaultaylor and online at Sunnybrook’s Your Health Matters.

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