CDC changes to pneumonia vaccine could hurt older Americans

CDC changes to pneumonia vaccine could hurt older Americans
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My organization has long advocated for the health and well-being of older Americans and the policy decisions that help maintain access to tools that help achieve those goals as we all age.

When I learned about a pending decision to potentially eliminate a vaccination that is critical in keeping older adults healthy, I knew I had to speak up. I’m especially committed to this cause because I, myself recently lived through a bout of pneumococcal disease, which made me so sick, there were some moments that I thought I would die.

In the next several weeks, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — a sub-committee at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may decide to drop a standing recommendation for a pneumococcal vaccine for adults over the age of 65. That may not sound like something that the average American needs to worry about, but here’s why I’m concerned.

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Without the ACIP recommendation, insurers aren’t required to cover the cost of the vaccine. Doctors and pharmacists may not be inclined to tell patients they need it; cases of pneumonia could rise and, after my first-hand experience last year, I know we can’t stand by and let more people risk getting sick from this devastating disease.

In January 2018, I thought I had a bad cold. A terrible cough, chest pain, exhaustion. When I finally ended up in the hospital needing breathing treatments, we realized this was beyond a normal cold or bronchial infection. Pneumonia took me out for the next six weeks. I couldn’t work, I could barely eat or drink. I’m an otherwise healthy, on the go person.

This disease leveled me. It took me three months to feel like I was back to my normal self.

And because I was 64 at the time I caught it — I hadn’t yet been vaccinated. Make no mistake, I had my sleeve rolled up and was ready for my shots when my birthday rolled around later that year.

I’m far from the only person who has dealt with pneumococcal disease. Estimates show that hundreds of thousands of Americans contract the disease annually and approximately 18,000 Americans over the age of 65 die each year from the disease. How can it be at a time where other diseases like measles — once thought eliminated are surging back-would we risk upping the number of people getting sick or worse?

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Despite making strides in raising adult immunization rates there are still plenty who are not protected. This is even more true among minority populations, who could be impacted even more by the proposed change.

In fact, the CDC’s own data shows that pneumococcal vaccination rates are “highest among adults aged 75 and over, non-Hispanic white and not poor." While 68 percent  of non-Hispanic whites have been vaccinated against the disease, the numbers drop off significantly for black (50 percent) Hispanic (41 percent) and Asian (49 percent) Americans.

These numbers fall far short of the Healthy People 2020 goal of having 90 percent  of adults over 65 vaccinated against pneumococcal disease. We should be doing everything we can to continue to grow these numbers, not make it harder for people to access and afford vaccines.

Because of the current pneumococcal vaccine recommendation for adults 65 and older, I was easily able to get the vaccination and my insurance covered it. That needs to continue to be the case for all older Americans — the alternative is unacceptable.

Too many lives could be impacted. Too many healthy people like myself could become unnecessarily sick. Too many families could lose a loved one. I pray the ACIP committee understands the importance of protecting seniors and keeps the current pneumococcal vaccination policy in place.

Karyne Jones is president and CEO of the National Caucus and Center on Black Aging (NCBA).