Pneumonia can affect anyone, but knowing your risk can make all the difference when it comes to this life-threatening infection – particularly if you are looking after young children or grandchildren.

That is one of the messages from Lung Foundation Australia’s latest campaign Know Pneumonia, which aims to address the low pneumonia vaccination rates among high-risk populations, including the over 65s and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

According to their recent research, Lung Foundation Australia found that more than three in five people in the study were considered at increased risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia, yet vaccination rates remained below 50 per cent.

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Pneumonia is one of the top five leading causes of hospitalisation

This is in stark contrast to high pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination rates in Australian children, which is at 93 per cent.

Infectious disease and immunisation expert, Professor Robert Booy from the University of Sydney, said this is particularly concerning given grandchildren may pass pneumonia onto their grandparents, and vice versa.

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

“Many older adults care for children who are mostly immunised against pneumococcal pneumonia, yet fail to protect themselves against the often-fatal infection.”

What is pneumococcal pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a potentially life-threatening infection that affects the lungs, and is among the top five leading causes of hospitalisation in Australia.

The infection causes the small air sacs of the lungs to fill with pus and fluid, making breathing painful, causing cough, and limiting oxygen intake.

Pneumonia may be caused by a virus or bacteria – pneumococcal pneumonia is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia. It is the only bacterial pneumonia for which vaccination is available.

Pneumococcal vaccination is funded under the government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP) for all Australians aged 65 years and older.

So, what can you do to protect yourself and your family?
Lung Foundation Australia CEO, Heather Allan, says practising good hand and home hygiene, and vaccination are the top ways to prevent pneumonia in the first place. Here are her top tips for WYZA readers:

1. Know your risk
Anyone, at any age, no matter how fit and healthy, can contract pneumococcal pneumonia. However, Lung Foundation Australia CEO, Heather Allan, cites “those aged 65 years of age and older, Indigenous Australians, and Australians living with a chronic disease, such as lung disease, heart disease and diabetes are at heightened risk.”

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Pneumococcus bacteria can spread between people through infected droplets, so good hygiene is important!

2. Maintain good hygiene
Pneumonia is transmitted via infected droplets, often through inhaling them. By practicing good hygiene both in and outside the home, you can reduce your risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia. Thorough hand-washing with soap is paramount. Keep commonly used surfaces in your home clean to prevent the spread of infection.

3. See your doctor
Your GP is a trustworthy source of information and due to their understanding of your medical history, they can inform you of your risks and the best course of action to take. One such action is vaccination.

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The pneumococcal vaccine is available free under the National Immunise Australia Program for those aged 65 and over

4. Vaccination
The pneumococcal pneumonia vaccination can protect you against approximately 23 different types of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria that can commonly cause pneumonia. Importantly, the vaccine is covered under the National Immunisation Program (NIP) for those aged 65 and older, Indigenous Australians and infants aged 12 months or under. 

5.  Recognise early warning signs
If you do contract pneumococcal pneumonia, there are signs to look out for. Ms Allan explains “the classic symptoms are: high fevers, chest pain, difficulty breathing, cough and fatigue. In older people, sometimes those signs can be much less obvious or even absent”.

Have you had pneumonia? Share your story below.

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