New advice for vaccines to stave off pneumonia

People age 65 and older should get two separate vaccines to protect against pneumonia and other infections starting this fall, a change of decades-old advice, according to new health guidelines.

An advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended that people get a second vaccine, called Prevnar 13, because of limitations with the older shot, called Pneumovax 23.

Both vaccines, which are usually administered once in older adults, are designed to protect against infections of the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, but they work in different ways. Prevnar 13 has been used by itself to vaccinate children since 2010 and has proven effective.

An estimated 900,000 people in the U.S. a year get pneumococcal pneumonia—a lung infection whose symptoms include fever, cough and chest pain—and 5% to 7% of patients die from it, according to the CDC. It is typically treated with antibiotics, but some strains have developed resistance to those drugs.

Pneumococcal bacteria also can cause so-called invasive diseases, including bacteremia, a bloodstream infection, and meningitis, which affects the brain and spinal cord. The CDC estimated there were about 3,300 deaths in the U.S. from these two diseases in 2012.

Pneumococcal infections are more likely to cause illness in older people, children younger than 2 years old and those with conditions that weaken the immune system, such as diabetes, according to the CDC. The bacteria are transmitted by contact with saliva or mucus. Children are carriers, harboring the bug in their noses or throats, and the bacteria are a common cause of middle-ear infections in kids.

The CDC is expected to formally adopt the advisory panel's recommendations in coming weeks.

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