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Pneumococcal Awareness

Image of Margo KerriganMargo Kerrigan, M.P.H., Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office

Pneumococcal Disease

November 2006 - Pneumococcal disease kills more people in the United States each year than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. Pneumococcal infection causes an estimated 40,000 deaths annually in the US. Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but some people are at greater risk. These include people age 65 and older, the very young, and people with special health problems such as alcoholism, heart or lung disease, kidney failure, diabetes, HIV infection, or certain types of cancer. Influenza infection also increases the risk of developing pneumococcal disease.

Alaskan Natives and American Indians also have a higher risk of developing serious pneumococcal disease. Rates for meningitis and bacteremic pneumonia are 8-10 times higher among Alaskan Natives of all ages than for other U.S. population groups.

Pneumococcal disease can lead to serious infections of the lungs (pneumonia), the blood (bacteremia), and the covering of the brain (meningitis). Severe pneumococcal infections result when bacteria travel from the brain into the bloodstream and the central nervous system. About 1 of every 20 people who get pneumococcal pneumonia die, as do about 2 of 10 who get bacteremia, and 3 of 10 who get meningitis. Those more likely to die are the elderly and patients who have underlying medical conditions. About 15-20% of people who contract pneumococcal bacteremia die; among elderly patients, this rate is approximately 30%-40%.

Drugs such as penicillin were once effective in treating these infections; but the disease has become more resistant to these drugs. This makes prevention of the disease through vaccination very important. Approximately half of the annual deaths from pneumococcal disease could be prevented through the use of vaccine.

Pneumococcal Vaccination

The pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPV) protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria. Most healthy adults who get the vaccine develop protection to most or all of these types within 2 to 3 weeks of getting the shot.

The following people should get a pneumococcal vaccination:

  • People age 65 or older
  • People (over age 2) who have problems with their lungs, heart, liver, or kidneys
  • People (over age 2) with health problems like diabetes, sickle cell disease, alcoholism, or HIV/AIDS
  • People (over age 2) taking a drug or treatment that lowers the body's resistance to infection (long-term steroids, radiation therapy, certain cancer drugs)

The shot is very safe and does not cause illness. The shot can be given at any time of the year. Now is a good time to get a vaccination if you need one, along with your annual influenza vaccination.

Most people only need one shot. This protects them for a lifetime. Some people might need to get a booster shot after 5 years. A second dose is recommended for those people aged 65 and older who got their first dose when they were under 65, if five or more years have passed since that dose. Ask your provider about the vaccination if you have never had it. Ask about a second dose if you are over 65 and had your first dose when you were younger.


The Indian Health Service has a GPRA measure for pneumococcal vaccination of patients age 65 and older, a high-risk group. In 2006 and 2005, 69% of eligible patients age 65 and older had received the pneumococcal vaccine nationally. In California, 72% of eligible patients over age 65 had received the pneumococcal vaccine in 2006, up from 71% in 2005. Increased vaccination rates will help protect this high-risk group from contracting pneumococcal disease.

For more information:

Visit the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention website: www.cdc.gov/nip Exit Disclaimer – You Are Leaving www.ihs.gov or call 1-800-232-2522.

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