Fixing the Pneumonia Epidemic

On November 12, it's World Pneumonia Day. This awareness day strives to the same goals as the WHO's Decade of Vaccines: to highlight the substantial public health challenge that is occurring at both ends of our age spectrum. Indeed, both children and older adults run the greatest risk for pneumonia and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

What's most remarkable about these two events is that they isolate problems where we actually have solutions. The innovative vaccines available to both kids and "seniors" can actually prevent diseases like pneumonia in the first place. For most diseases, such a solution would be considered a miracle. And rightly so. But for pneumonia and other vaccine-preventable diseases, we've become jaded. So World Pneumonia Day and the Decade of Vaccines must do the hard work of raising awareness and attention among parents, pediatricians, geriatricians, nurses, elder caregivers, and all others in the healthcare ecosystem.

Half this battle is already being fought. There is considerable attention given to children's vaccines. Even, somewhat ironically, the baseless "anti-vaxxer" arguments have prompted greater enthusiasm for the benefits of these miracle medicines.

But the other half of the battle has yet to be waged. Where is the serious global immunization campaign for adults in their 40s, 50s, 60s and even into our 80s and beyond? Where is the awareness movement for adults who will be subject to the illness as they age? This would be a compelling pillar of real health prevention, one at least as powerful as the children's vaccine program we applaud and continue.   

The facts are straightforward, even if the culture of prevention is not. Pneumonia is a life-threatening respiratory infection that has become one of the leading causes of death throughout the world. And as our population ages, globally, across developed and developing countries alike, you can bet that incidence of pneumonia will increase.

Nevertheless, immunizations among adults remain below target levels. These substandard vaccination rates create unnecessary costs, unwanted health outcomes, and poor utilization of health resources. It's also a disgrace that we do not implement what is available to reduce health risks and save money. A report by the Global Coalition on Aging in 2013 posited the notion of a "life-course approach to immunization." According to GCOA, this approach is "promising, but underutilized...[and] stresses vaccinations throughout all our stages of life." GCOA's call to action is also promoted by preeminent global institutions, from the WHO, to the International Federation on Aging, and the prominent global network of think tanks, the International Longevity Center.

This life-course approach to immunization is especially pressing as the global population ages. Preventing diseases such as pneumococcal pneumonia among older adults can save families and health systems huge amounts of money. Indeed, at the individual level, pneumonia can have a dramatic impact on individuals, including missed work days, long-term health-related complications, and even death. It can impact caregivers as well, who may also miss work, lose income, and bear emotional consequences as they bear the burden of their parents and grandparents whose pneumonia could have been prevented. An adult immunization campaign that learns from what the global health community has achieved over decades in its childhood immunization campaign stands a chance at preventing the disease and ensuring the well-being of a new and growing generation at risk - our aging population.

With 1 billion of us over 60 - and the most rapidly growing demographic globally over 80 - surely health officials can also communicate the alerts for adults to reduce their risks of pneumonia through the community-wide use of vaccines. Can't we in the health community walk and chew gum at the same time? Immunization for the children and also for adults!

So, on November 12, let's not only "celebrate" World Pneumonia Day, but let's do something about this huge and growing health challenge. Growing not least because of the exploding aging of our population putting more of us seniors at risk. It is one of the rare moments when public health need, economic value, and morality all intersect. If we get it right, the marketplace will stimulate further R&D and lead to even more exciting and value-added innovation. 

Just as public, private, and philanthropic leaders did a brilliant job with childhood vaccination decades ago, so too must we bring the same commitment, dedication, and creativity to adult and "life-course" vaccination. Regular vaccinations can keep older people healthier and more capable, freeing them up from illness and disability so that they can contribute to economic growth in a significant and necessary way.