Study: Vaccination of Children Benefits Elderly

A new study suggests that the best way to prevent pneumonia from killing elderly Americans is to vaccinate all children. The study found that deaths from pneumonia among the elderly dropped by one-third when children in the same area were vaccinated.

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Researchers say pneumonia can be prevented in older adults not just by making sure adults get immunized but also by giving children and infants the pneumonia vaccine. Since a vaccine for children became available in 2000, the number of deaths related to pneumonia has fallen sharply in several areas; that's according to a study in tomorrow's Journal of the American Medical Association. NPR's Patricia Neighmond has details.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

The children's vaccine protects against the most common bacteria that cause pneumonia, so researchers wanted to see if vaccinated kids would help decrease disease among people over the age of 60. Pneumonia can be particularly severe among older adults. Researchers looked at eight different areas of the country and compared the number of cases of pneumonia before and four years after introduction of the children's vaccine. Epidemiologist Catherine Lexau works for the Department of Health in Minnesota.

Ms. CATHERINE LEXAU (Epidemiologist): We found that after a vaccine was licensed, we saw dramatic decreases in serious pneumococcal infections in those older adults.

NEIGHMOND: In fact, cases declined by nearly a third, a surprising and positive side benefit of the children's vaccine, says Lexau. The children's vaccine was developed because young children are vulnerable to severe types of pneumonia.

Ms. LEXAU: Children's immune systems don't mount an adequate immune response under the age of two. They just are not in the position to be protected against those infections.

NEIGHMOND: And if children under two become infected, Lexau says health consequences can be severe.

Ms. LEXAU: In the case of meningitis, they would certainly need to be hospitalized and could have, in a number of cases, died, or there are long-standing complications that could occur, such as mental retardation, deafness, following the meningitis. So these are serious infections.

NEIGHMOND: Serious, too, for older adults, especially those who are frail and suffer other chronic health problems. Geriatrician David Reuben is president of the American Geriatrics Society. Reuben says pneumonia is the number-one cause of hospitalization for infectious disease among older people. And if the vaccine decreases transmission, he says, that's very good news, especially around the beginning of school and after winter break.

Dr. DAVID REUBEN (President, American Geriatrics Society): There are a number of epidemics of influenza among the population in general, and these tend to occur when children go back to school. Curiously enough, children bring it into the school, the other children get it, they bring it home and their families get influenza or get other respiratory illnesses.

NEIGHMOND: And for family or extended family members over 50, the flu and other respiratory illnesses can develop into pneumonia. Researchers say vulnerable adults, those with chronic health problems, should still get their pneumonia vaccines. The adult vaccine protects against more types of bacteria that cause pneumonia than the children's vaccine. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

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