There is a renewed push to get people to have pneumonia vaccinations.
There is a renewed push to get people to have pneumonia vaccinations. Cathy Adams

'I thought I might die': The infection killing thousands

DOCTORS and governments are being urged to "work harder" to reinforce the public health message regarding the seriousness of the potentially life-threatening, but preventable infection, pneumococcal pneumonia.

The Lung Foundation Australia is teaming up with researchers, doctors and patients across NSW today, during Pneumonia Awareness Week (May 13-20), to call for proactive community action to address the declining vaccination rates against pneumococcal pneumonia.

The infection is responsible for more than 15,000 GP visits, 8000 hospitalisations, and 2000 deaths among those aged over 65 each year.

An article published in MJA Insight today, by UNSW Vaccine and Infection Research Lab researchers, reveals pneumonia ends lives prematurely, even in wealthy countries today with access to the best health care. 

Article co-author and infectious diseases researcher, Dr Rob Menzies, said 93 per cent of Australian children were had the pneumococcal vaccination.

"Yet we're failing to achieve even a 50 per cent pneumococcal vaccination rate among equally vulnerable seniors, despite the publicly-funded immunisation program - a simple preventative health measure that could prevent serious disease or premature death," he said.

"The most recent data suggest pneumococcal vaccination coverage has actually declined to 47 per cent in NSW, with more than half of these vaccinations occurring after 70 years of age.

"This decline must be urgently reversed."

Pneumonia vaccinations should be considered for:

  • Smokers
  • Anyone with a chronic disease or immunocompromising condition
  • Anyone aged 65 years or over.

Academic and grandmother-to-five, Jane, 67, was first diagnosed with pneumonia in 2006.

Since then she'd had multiple episodes which have put her in hospital for days, and her physical ability is limited due to the difficulty she experiences with simply "breathing".

"I'll usually wake up at three or four o'clock in the morning struggling to breathe," she said.

"By that stage, I will know whether I'm able to get myself to hospital, or whether I will need to call an ambulance.

"What follows is usually admission to hospital, stabilisation of my condition, treatment with antibiotics and more steroids, and then eventual discharge. The whole process takes around one week, and it's exhausting. When I come home from hospital, I barely have the energy to have a shower, and it takes weeks to recover.

"There have been various occasions during these episodes, when I thought I might die."

Lung Foundation Australia chief executive, Heather Allan, symptoms of pneumonia included chest pain, coughing, fatigue and difficulty breathing.

She said the pneumococcal vaccine was provided free under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) Schedule for all Australians aged 65 and above, indigenous Australians aged 50 years and over, indigenous Australians aged 15 to 49 years who are medically at risk, and infants under 12 months.

A second dose of vaccine is also available to Australians with immunocompromising conditions or chronic disease, or smokers, a minimum of five years following their first dose.

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