May 10, 2016

Adding life to years: “Super seniors” urged to protect against fatal lung infection

Only one per cent of Australians aged 18–74 understand age-appropriate vaccination is vital to maintaining good health,1 while just 20 per cent of those at most risk of infection have been vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia,1 according to new figures set for release today to mark Pneumonia Awareness Week (May 9-15, 2016).

Lung Foundation Australia’s ‘Breathe well, age well’ research reveals two-in-three (66 per cent) Australian adults consider themselves to be younger and fitter than their parents were at their age,1

A staggering 87 per cent of seniors (aged 65 – 74) cite they are younger and fitter than their parent’s generation were at their age,1 and 65 per cent do not consider their age to be a health-risk factor.1 Furthermore, the majority of folks in this age group (57 per cent) do not believe that contracting the often fatal lung infection, pneumococcal pneumonia, would have a major impact on their lives.1

Respiratory physician and Lung Foundation Australia National Council member, Associate Professor Lucy Morgan, Sydney,  said while the so-called “Super seniors” positive attitude towards their health is admirable, 52 per cent of this age group surveyed are at increased risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia through an existing medical condition or lifestyle factors (current or past smoking).1

“We are seeing the rise of a generation of healthy, fit and fabulous Australians in their mid-60s who love to travel and to care for their grandchildren. They take good care of themselves, and are dedicated to ‘adding years to life’, by exercising and eating well, but don’t realise that developing pneumococcal pneumonia could change all of that.

“The stark reality is, all adults aged 65 and over are at increased risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia due to their age alone, and pneumococcal vaccination can ‘add life to years,’” A/Prof Morgan said.

Pneumococcal pneumonia is a severe lung infection caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae,2 and it’s responsible for a large proportion of pneumonia cases among people aged 65 years and above.3

“While the majority of Australians (64 per cent) aged 18-74 have had a flu shot at some stage in their lives, only 20 per cent of those at highest risk of infection, cite they have been vaccinated against this often fatal lung infection,” said A/Prof Morgan.

Worryingly, the ‘Breathe well, age well’ research found the majority of Australians at-risk of pneumococcal pneumonia do not intend to vaccinate against the preventable infection.1

This year, Pneumonia Awareness Week aims to raise awareness, especially among older Australians, of the importance of protecting against pneumococcal pneumonia, given among seniors aged 65–74 who report they are yet to vaccinate against pneumococcal pneumonia, 40 per cent are not even aware of the pneumococcal vaccine’s existence.1

A/Prof Morgan said that while the vaccination rate for pneumonia is highest among those aged 65–74 years at 37 per cent, this still leaves the majority, almost two-thirds of people aged 65-74 years, unvaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia.1

“Of great concern, is the fact that the rate of vaccination among this age group remains low despite our efforts to raise awareness.

“Furthermore, only 17 per cent of Australians aged 65–74 are even aware that pneumonia is among the top five leading causes of hospitalisation in Australia,”1 A/Prof Morgan said.

Professor Robert Booy, Infectious Diseases Paediatrician and Immunisation expert, University of Sydney, Sydney, said it is important for Australian seniors to be vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia, for preventing an episode of infection could add years of high quality life to their natural lives, and may also help to curb the spread of infection to their vulnerable grandchildren, for whom many seniors care.

“The ‘Breathe well, age well’ research found that for grandparents, enjoying time with their grandchildren (78 per cent) ranks alongside travel as the most popular activity,”1 said Prof Booy.

“Given that grandchildren are at risk of passing the often fatal lung infection onto their grandparents, and vice-versa, protecting against pneumococcal infection would enrich their lives, allowing them to spend more quality time caring for, and interacting with their grandchildren.

“With Australian children, we’re achieving 93 per cent pneumococcal vaccine uptake. However, among equally vulnerable seniors, we are failing to achieve even 50 per cent pneumococcal vaccine uptake,1 which could achieve up to five more years of high quality life for an individual,” Prof Booy said.

Interestingly, the research found that the prospect of passing on pneumococcal pneumonia to grandchildren is also cause for concern for grandparents, with as many as 65 per cent of those yet to be vaccinated, citing this risk would prompt them to seek a pneumococcal vaccination.1

Mother-to-three, grandmother-to-two, accountant and cake decorator, Leigh, 56, Sydney, has always led an active life. She loves to travel, go to the football, attend aqua aerobics and spend quality time with her grandchildren. In June 2009 however, Leigh’s world came crashing down, when the ex-smoker developed an unrelenting headache, and was overcome by exhaustion. Eight days later, she was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia, and hospitalised for the ensuing week.

She spent the following three months mounting an epic recovery from the devastating respiratory infection that had stolen the lives of her grandmother, grandfather, brother and father-in-law, and had almost claimed the life of her sister, who battled pneumonia on three occasions. The infection took a heavy toll on Leigh, from a health and lifestyle, as well as a financial perspective, for she was unable to run her accounting business for some time. Five years later, Leigh contracted a viral strain of pneumonia.

“Contracting pneumonia is an infection you’ll never forget. It feels like someone has hit you with a bat and sat on your chest.

“Since contracting two episodes of pneumonia – bacterial and viral – five years apart, my breathing has never been the same. I now find it hard to regulate my breath when I swim, and I’m really frightening of contracting the often fatal infection again,” said Leigh.

“Given that I now work around children, bookkeeping for a kindergarten twice-a-week, I will definitely get vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia when I become eligible for the free vaccine in my mid-60s, because the infection is vaccine-preventable and could literally save your life.”

Lung Foundation Australia CEO, Heather Allan, said the pneumococcal vaccination is funder under the government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) for all Australians 65 years and older, Indigenous Australians aged 50 years and over, and Indigenous Australians aged 15 years and over who are medically at risk. She said a second dose of vaccine is also available to many Australians, a minimum of five years following their first dose. Furthermore, the vaccination is subsidised on the PBS for all adults 18 years or over who are medically at risk, such as those with chronic lung, heart or liver disease or diabetes.

“Pneumonia-like illness (flu and pneumonia) is one of the top 15 contributing causes of death in Australia.4 The illness can affect anyone. Individuals at greatest risk of pneumococcal pneumonia include infants; people aged over 65 years; those with impaired immunity; tobacco smokers; and people with chronic illnesses such as asthma, COPD, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and liver disease.

“While Australians are aware of the importance of eating well and exercising regularly, they are relatively complacent when it comes to protecting against pneumococcal infection, including good personal hygiene and vaccination,” Ms Allan said.

“Pneumonia Awareness Week serves to reinforce the seriousness of pneumonia and the importance of protecting against the potentially life-threatening infection, because when you can’t breathe, nothing else matters, as many who have experienced pneumonia will tell you.”

For more information about Pneumonia Awareness Week, visit www.lungfoundation.com.au or call Lung Foundation Australia on 1800 654 301.

About pneumonia, pneumococcal pneumonia and vaccination

Pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening infection that affects the lungs. The lungs are made up of small sacs which fill with air when a healthy person breathes. When a person has pneumonia, these sacs fill with pus and fluid, which makes breathing painful, causes cough and limits oxygen intake.10 Pneumonia may be caused by a virus, bacteria or fungi.4 Pneumococcal pneumonia, caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae,2 is the only bacterial pneumonia for which vaccination is available.

The Breathe well, age well research

The Lung Foundation Australia Breathe well, age well research is a consumer survey that examined the attitudes, behaviours and understanding of the seriousness of pneumonia, and the importance of protecting against this potentially life-threatening lung infection – including vaccination.

About Pneumonia Awareness Week 2016

Pneumonia Awareness Week (May 9–15, 2016) is designed to educate Australian adults to recognise the seriousness of pneumonia, and to ask their doctor how best to protect themselves from contracting pneumococcal pneumonia.

About Lung Foundation Australia

Lung Foundation Australia is a national charity whose vision is to make lung health a priority for all. We fund research into lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) and more. We are the only national charity supporting anyone with a lung disease; the only national, first point-of-call for lung health information for patients and their families, carers, health professionals and the community; and the only national charity delivering Australia-wide lung health promotion.

References

  1. ‘Breathe well, age well’ Pneumonia 2016 survey. Conducted by Galaxy Research, commissioned by Lung Foundation Australia. April 2016.
  2. Harrison C, Britt H. Pneumococcal vaccination among patients at general practice encounters 2013. Byte from BEACH No: 2014; 1 Sydney. FMRC, University of Sydney, 2014.
  3. Hogg GG, Strachan JE, Lester RA. Invasive pneumococcal disease in the population of Victoria. Med J Aust 2000; 173: S32-S35.
  4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Causes of Death in Australia, 2013. Available

http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2013~Main%20Features~Leading%20Causes%20of%20Death~10001 [last accessed April, 2016].