Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stopping Flu's Bacterial Partner

Often in fatal flu cases, the complication that overwhelms the patient is bacterial pneumonia. Thus, as Michael Alderman writes in the NY Times, our national flu strategy should include mass immunization against pneumococcus, the most common cause of pneumonia. He writes:

While not all bacterial pneumonia is attributable to the pneumococcus bacteria, it is the most common variety, and the one for which a vaccine exists. It is estimated that pneumococcal vaccination could prevent half of these bacterial-related deaths.

Developed 30 years ago, the vaccine is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control's National Immunization Program for people over 65, or with chronic diseases or damaged immune systems. Since 2001, a form of the vaccine has been administered to nearly all infants. The vaccine, which helps protect against 23 strains of pneumococcal bacteria, has only very minor side effects, works for 5 to 10 years, and can be extended by a booster.

The vaccine has other advantages. At a time when bacteria have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics, including penicillin, prevention is our most dependable line of defense.

Thinking about pneumococcus in addition to influenza vaccination is an example of what I wrote about in a prior post about what the adminsitration's avian influenza plan needs to do better--integrate flu preparedness with the public health response to ongoing infectious disease threats. We can't allow narrow focus on the flu allow us to become more vulnerable to the host of diseases the public health system keeps at bay like TB and West Nile Virus--or to complications of flu like pneumococcal pneumonia--especially since with good planning, improvements in infectious disease surveillance, vaccination plans, quarantine, and other public health measures should be synergistic among disease preparedness plans.


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