If you were around when Bonanza was a phenomenon, you’re of the age where your doctor will probably advise you (or even strong-arm you) to get a pneumonia vaccine. You’ll be told it’s a whole lot more effective than flu shots, it’s harmless, and plus, one dose does it forever. No annual boosters.
The fact is, pneumonia is very dangerous, especially for seniors and children. Approximately 900,000 Americans get the disease each year, and of those a startling proportion—400,000 to 550,000—will end up in the hospital. Pneumonia is the eighth leading cause of death in the US, the world’s leading cause of death for kids under five and the second most common cause of adult hospitalizations in the US, just behind childbirth. Between 47,000 and 63,000 people in the US die from pneumonia each year; deaths from pneumonia far outnumber those from the flu. According to the CDC, there were 32 deaths among those 18-65 from flu reported in a single week in the US in 2015, versus 667 from pneumonia. Among those older than 65, there were 77 deaths from the flu and 2,752 from pneumonia. And truth be told, flu and pneumonia are connected; many of those deaths from pneumonia are the result of flu exhausting the immune system, thereby allowing opportunistic pneumonia to take hold.
In any case, while antibiotics can help fight pneumonia, the death rate from pneumonia hasn’t improved much since the advent of antibiotics. The reasons for this include antibiotic resistance, the fact that some pneumonias are viral, and that pneumonia can cause other problems.
Because pneumonia is particularly dangerous to elderly people, it’s clear why medical professionals would advise their senior patients to protect themselves. But does the pneumonia vaccine provide that protection? And if so, at what cost?
Before unrolling your sleeve for the shot, it’s important to understand that pneumonia isn’t caused by a single microbe. The disease may be caused by a virus, by fungi, or by one of hundreds of strains of bacteria. The Pneumovax 23 (PPSV23) vaccine, introduced by Merck in 1983, ostensibly protects against 23 of the most common bacterial agents causing pneumonia. There’s also a second shot available since 2010, called Prevnar 13, that protects against 13 additional strains. Current CDC recommendations for seniors call for getting both vaccines spaced six months to a year apart, while kids under two get just the Prevnar 13 unless they’re in certain risk groups. While these two vaccines have some efficacy in preventing new cases of the 36 strains of pneumonia they protect against, neither shot nor a combination of the two can protect against every form of pneumonia. The scary thing is that the bacteria that cause pneumonia tend to mutate at an alarming rate, meaning that new strains of bacterial pneumonia keep surfacing. It appears that the vaccines, by causing bacteria to work hard, may inadvertently have triggered mutations that created new drug-resistant super-strains of pneumonia.
Now here’s the kicker. There’s conflicting information out there about whether the vaccine actually works. According to one source, there hasn’t been a single controlled study yet that shows pneumonia rates dropping after vaccination with Prevnar 13. One study that was done in South Africa found that 75 to 80 percent of the vaccinated subjects did indeed develop antibodies to fight the targeted pneumonia strains, but the study didn’t look at whether those antibodies actually led to a reduction in rates of infection. According to Dr. David Brownstein who wrote Dr. Brownstein’s Natural Way to Health, “We don’t have any proof that this vaccine works…I think it is shameful that this vaccine is recommended for prevention of pneumonia when there are no controlled studies showing it is effective.” This statement dates to 2013.
Dr. Brownstein suggests that vaccines in general are wasted on seniors. “There aren’t any vaccines that work well in the elderly,” he says. “Their immune systems don’t respond well to vaccines…”
But in 2014, Pfizer released results of an 85,000-subject study finding that the Prevnar 13 vaccine reduced pneumonia infection (from the targeted 13 strains of bacteria) by 45 percent in elderly subjects. Again, this study was run by the company selling the product, and 45 percent isn’t stellar. Other studies have found similar spotty performance. Nevertheless, given how deadly pneumonia is an argument can be made in favor of the vaccine.
Other than mediocre performance, the other problem is the side effects. Vaccines may contain toxic preservatives such as phenol, formaldehyde, or mercury, and these are cumulative in the body. You probably already have a build-up of phenol, particularly if you must have regular tuberculosis tests at your job. While most sources minimize the risk of side effects (maybe just a little soreness at injection site), the facts tell a different story. According to Drugs.com, these are some of the more common reactions to Pneumovax 23:
- Pain at the injection site (77 percent)
- Swelling (35 percent)
- Rash with inflammation (34 percent)
- Headache (18 percent)
- Fatigue (18 percent)
- Body Aches (17 percent)
- Neck Pain, Nausea, Diarrhea, Fever, Respiratory Infections (up to 10 percent)
More serious complications include Guillian-Barre Syndrome, cellulitis, arthritis, convulsions, heart failure, angina, colitis, edema, allergic reaction, and more, including death. It’s interesting to note that an article posted on Medicine.net, states, “Pneumococcal vaccine uncommonly causes side effects. Reported side effects include soreness and/or redness at the site of the injection, fever, rash, and allergic reactions.” The article netted 100 comments, all seeming to describe severe reactions, many involving extreme pain and swelling, and many voicing some variation of “never again.” Ironically, while I was writing this article, the news reported that the Incredible Hulk star Lou Ferrigno ended up in the hospital because his pneumonia vaccine went awry.
Everything considered, should you get the pneumonia vaccine? Again, pneumonia is dreadful and dangerous, and reducing your chances of infection may be worth the vaccination risks and discomforts for some, but don’t forget that you can bolster your immune system in more natural ways. Eat right, detoxify your system, wash your hands, and take a good immune-building formula to remain resilient and disease free. And keep in mind that even if you get the vaccine—and perhaps especially if you get it—boosting your immune system makes all the sense in the world since the stronger your immune system when vaccinated, the better your immune system will respond to the vaccine and the more protective it will be. Also, it’s a good idea to keep a supply of natural antipathogens capable of taking on bacteria, viruses, and fungi in your medicine cabinet—just in case.