“Not enough people understand the dangers of pneumococcal disease”, says Kevin Kelly, Advocacy & Communications Manager at the Asthma Society of Ireland.

Yet it's essential they do because Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (pneumococcus) can cause potentially fatal diseases including meningitis, sepsis, pneumonia and inflammation of the heart, and is a leading cause of death worldwide.

'In Ireland it's estimated that 37 people a year lose their life because of Invasive pneumococcal disease'

Statistics from the HSE Immunisation Office show that quite a lot of people carry the bug in their nose and throat, and while this does not do harm, some who become actively infected in the lungs developing pneumonia, or meningitis, and for some the infection can be so severe that people die.

In Ireland it's estimated that 37 people a year lose their life because of Invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD). “Unfortunately we haven't seen any data to suggest that public awareness of pneumococcal infection is increasing,” says Kelly.

“In fact only one in seven people who are eligible for the pneumococcal vaccine have actually had it. That's a low figure.”

 
 

Dr. Brenda Corcoran from the National Immunisation Office explains how the pneumococcal vaccine helps protect babies against diseases caused by pneumococcus


 

Vaccine free to 'at risk' groups

'Everyone aged 65 years or older, or defined as being in an 'at risk' group for pneumococcal disease, is eligible to receive the pneumococcal vaccine'

 

The pneumococcal PPV23  vaccine  is also recommended for those with a known  weakened immune system. The vaccine is given from the age of 2 years.

Everyone aged 65 years or older, or defined as being in an 'at risk' group for pneumococcal disease, is eligible to receive the pneumococcal vaccine PPV23.

Adults in 'at risk' groups include those with long-term health conditions including diabetes, chronic heart, lung, kidney or liver disease, and people who have occupational exposure to metal fumes, such a welders.

Other 'at risk' groups include those with cochlear implants, people with Down syndrome and those without a spleen or with a non-functioning spleen. The HSE provides the pneumococcal PPV23 vaccine free for all those in the recommended groups through their GP.

There is also no vaccine administration charge for those in the recommended groups who have a Medical Card (or Doctor Only Card).

Both vaccines are given as an intramuscular injection. 

It's an effective prevention, too: figures from the HSE show that PCV protects against up to 80% of pneumococcal bacteria that cause IPD; while one study noted that PPV23 was 85% to 90% effective in preventing IPD in adults.

 

Asthma and pneumococcal vaccine

 

Ireland has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma in the world: 470,000 people have the condition and more than 60% do not have it under control.

The Asthma Society of Ireland recommends that people with asthma should therefore consult their healthcare professionals and receive the pneumococcal vaccine if it is felt appropriate.

“That's particularly true of those who have asthma and who are over 65; and/or those who have moderate to severe asthma and who may be hospitalised regularly as a result of their condition,” says Kelly.

'Ireland has the fourth highest prevalence of asthma in the world'

One reason why take up of PPV is low may be because of confusion surrounding the flu vaccine and the pneumococcal vaccine, says Kelly. “It's important to understand that pneumococcal vaccine doesn't prevent seasonal flu; while the flu vaccine doesn't prevent pneumococcal infection,” he says.

“While it won't be necessary or appropriate for all people with asthma to receive the flu injection and the pneumococcal vaccine, you should consult your GP about the possibility of receiving both, because of the potential for flu to develop into pneumonia.”