Evidence shows that the pneumonia vaccine just doesn't cut it

Place Your Bets

If you’re over age 65, the CDC advises you to get a pneumonia vaccination.

And if you’re pregnant, or if you’re a healthcare provider, or if you have diabetes, or heart disease or liver disease, you’re also advised to get the vaccine.

And this past January, the CDC extended the vaccine’s recommendation to include asthma patients and smokers. (Given that about 20 percent of U.S. adults are smokers, that’s a sweet gift to the vaccine manufacturer.)

This new recommendation is based on the fact that asthmatics and smokers are more likely to develop pneumonia. So you can be sure doctors will be prescribing the vaccine more than ever.

But the new recommendation is NOT based on any evidence that the vaccine will be effective. And I think you can confidently bet your next paycheck that it won’t be.

Swiss miss

My legal department will probably want me to urge you to make no hasty wagers based on my bias against unnecessary drug use. Okay, then – how about some research?

Before you call your bookie, we’ll take a quick look at a recent study, conducted by researchers at Switzerland’s Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, University of Bern.

The Swiss team analyzed more than 20 clinical trials that compared the pneumonia vaccine with control groups. These trials involved more than 100,000 subjects.

In the Canadian Medical Association Journal the Swiss team writes: “There was little evidence of vaccine protection in trials of higher methodologic quality…”

And: “There was little evidence of vaccine protection among elderly patients or adults with chronic illness in analyses of all trials…”

And finally: “Pneumococcal vaccination does not appear to be effective in preventing pneumonia, even in populations for whom the vaccine is currently recommended.”

A solution with some bite to it

We might consider holding our bets if the Swiss study were the only one that had found the pneumonia vaccine lacking. But six years ago, in the e-Alert “Revealing The Matrix” (5/21/03), I told you about a New England Journal of Medicine study in which researchers examined four years of medical records for more than 47,000 subjects over the age of 65.

Results of that study showed that the pneumonia vaccine was effective in preventing an uncommon form of pneumonia. But the authors noted that the findings “suggest that alternative strategies are needed to prevent nonbacteremic pneumonia, which is a more common manifestation of pneumococcal infection in elderly persons.”

Alternative strategies? What! No drugs?

Well then – how about a visit to the dentist? According to studies published in the Journal of Periodontology and the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, regular cleaning of the teeth and gums by a dentist, coupled with good oral hygiene at home, is associated with a reduced risk of pneumonia. Researchers speculate that excessive bacteria in the gum line eventually accumulates in the throat, setting the stage for infection and respiratory problems such as pneumonia.

Oral bacteria can also be reduced by using a sugar substitute called xylitol. This sweetener was developed in Finland more than 50 years ago, and research really does support the remarkable claim that xylitol (naturally found in many fruits and vegetables) may prevent tooth decay.

You can find many xylitol gums and lozenges online or at your local health food store.

I mean, it might not be as unreliable as the vaccine, but it may be worth a shot.

“Efficacy of Pneumococcal Vaccination in Adults” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Vol. 180, No. 1, 1/6/09, cmaj.ca
“Effectiveness of Pneumococcal Polysaccharide Vaccine in Older Adults” New England Journal of Medicine, 2003 May 1;348(18):1747-55, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov