ALMOST two-in-three at-risk Queenslanders aged 15-to-64 are failing to protect against an often fatal lung infection, according to new Australian-first research released on Tuesday.

Spearheaded by the University of Sydney's Family Medicine Research Centre and based on GP data involving 2,500 patients nation-wide, the research reveals poor vaccination rates among younger Australians.

Many of whom are at increased risk of developing pneumococcal pneumonia - a severe form of pneumonia caused by bacteria.

Doctors are joining forces with patients this Pneumonia Awareness Week, to call for preventative action to curb pneumococcal infection rates this winter.

According to Professor Robert Booy, Head of Clinical Research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), this research reinforces the dangers associated with pneumococcal pneumonia, particularly during the colder months.

"Pneumonia-like illness is one of the top 10 contributing causes of deaths in Australia.3 The most recent statistics reveal that in one year, more females died from pneumonia than males, with 1,303 female deaths compared to 1,019 male deaths.

"Worryingly, this research reveals vaccination coverage is low among people aged 15-to-64 years who are at-risk of pneumococcal pneumonia, including people living with diabetes, chronic heart disease, chronic lung disease and tobacco smokers," said Prof Booy.

"In addition, one of the most commonly cited factors associated with low vaccination rates among high-risk groups is patient objection, particularly among those aged 65 years and older. But if only these people recognised the fact that they are at such high risk, they would get vaccinated.

"This finding is also particularly concerning, given the number of new cases of pneumococcal pneumonia each year rises exponentially between the ages of 50 and 80 years," Prof Booy said.                         

The bacteria that causes pneumococcal pneumonia, known as Streptococcus pneumoniae, is responsible for approximately 1.6 million deaths per year world-wide,6 claiming more lives than any other single bacteria.

"Streptococcus pneumoniae is a very cunning organism, which can be spread by touching an infected person and through infected droplets in the air from a cough or sneeze," said Prof Booy.

"There are ways to protect yourself against pneumococcal pneumonia, including vaccination," according to University of Queensland's Professor John Upham.

"To avoid the spread of infection practising good hygiene is vital - regular hand-washing, keeping household surfaces clean, and learning to recognise the symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia, including rapid or difficulty breathing, cough, fever, chills or loss of appetite."

Entertainer and presenter, Patti Newton, was unaware of the severity of pneumonia until the illness struck her husband of 38 years, Bert, last winter.                                              

"At first Bert was displaying flu-like symptoms, including a persistent cough. Then he began struggling to breathe."

After observing her husband's declining health, Patti convinced him to see their local doctor.

"I kept urging Bert to visit the doctor because I knew something wasn't right.                                                                

"Our local GP sent Bert directly to hospital emergency, where specialists diagnosed pneumonia in both lungs.              

"The pneumonia was obstructing Bert's airways. He was sent straight to intensive care and hooked up to all sorts of equipment. It was incredibly frightening," Patti said.                       

Patti is now committed to heightening community awareness and understanding of pneumonia.

"Many people incorrectly liken pneumonia to the flu. But once pneumonia takes hold of you, it's very hard to shake.   

"It's a serious and often life-threatening infection that requires certain preventative measures.

"People at increased risk of pneumonia should speak to their doctor about ways to protect themselves against pneumococcal pneumonia.

"Bert has been vaccinated, to reduce his risk of contracting pneumococcal pneumonia, and I'm about to have one too," said Patti.                                                                                                                                       

According to Prof Upham, while pneumococcal pneumonia can affect anyone, some people are at heightened risk of contracting the infection.

"Pneumococcal vaccination is recommended in Australia for infants, patients aged 65 years and over, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, tobacco smokers and high-risk people aged 10-64 years, including those with impaired immunity, and those with diabetes, chronic lung disease, chronic heart disease and chronic kidney disease.

"GPs can diagnose pneumococcal pneumonia with a variety of tests, including a physical examination, chest X-ray, phlegm test, blood test and a urine test," Prof Upham said.

During normal respiration, air travels through the lungs to the alveoli or air sacs.

Pneumococcal pneumonia is the result of the air sacs filling with fluids, most commonly caused by bacteria obstructing normal air flow.

Mother of five, Bernadette, 42, from Brisbane, was recently rushed to hospital emergency with bacterial pneumonia, after experiencing what she thought were cold-like symptoms.

"I just thought I had a cold and the cough was from all of the dust from our renovations," said Bernadette.

However, when the symptoms persisted, Bernadette knew "something wasn't right" and visited her GP.

Diagnosed with a chest infection, Bernadette returned home, only to be rushed to hospital the following day.

"I never cry, but I was so ill and exhausted that I just couldn't stop crying. I felt like I was going to die," Bernadette said.

The emergency doctors immediately recognised problems with Bernadette's breathing, her fluctuating temperature and extreme clamminess.

After a chest X-ray was ordered, she was diagnosed with pneumonia and a partially collapsed lung.

"I was put in isolation for three days with only the occasional masked visitor. The doctors took nasal and throat swabs to determine the type of bacterial pneumonia I was suffering from," said Bernadette.

Bernadette is now facing a minimum three month recovery period and is taking precautions to avoid re-infection.

"When you hear the word pneumonia, you automatically associate it with the elderly or the very young, not someone who is fit and healthy. Certainly, not someone like me," Bernadette said.

 

Pneumococcal pneumonia

  • Pneumococcal pneumonia is a serious inflammatory lung infection associated with symptoms of pneumonia, including fever, cough and difficulty breathing.
  • It's caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pneumoniae.
  • Healthy people may carry S. pneumoniae bacteria in their nose and throat. While most of the time this does not cause any illness, vulnerable groups may develop the disease.

Pneumonia Awareness Week 2012

  • Pneumonia Awareness Week runs from Monday, July 2 to Sunday, July 8, 2012.
  • The week is designed to educate Australians about the seriousness of pneumonia and to encourage those at risk of developing the infection to seek further information. 
  • This winter, the theme for Pneumonia Awareness Week is Protecting Against Pneumococcal Pneumonia.

People at risk of pneumococcal pneumonia should see their doctor about ways to protect themselves against infection, including vaccination.

For more information about pneumonia, visit www.lungfoundation.com.au.

 

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