Fact or fake? Demystifying myths about pneumonia and pneumococcal vaccines

October 25, 2022 - 5:41 PM

Pneumonia remains a leading cause of death in the Philippines. According to the latest data from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), pneumonia was the seventh leading cause of death in the Philippines in 2021.

While it is life-threatening, pneumonia is also highly preventable. Our greatest defense against this deadly disease? Vaccination. In a bid to demystify misconceptions about pneumonia, and ramp up immunization against the disease, MSD in the Philippines, in partnership with Interaksyon.com, gave a free webinar titled “JAB Well Done! Bakuna Muna Kontra Pulmonya” last October 24, 2022.

Hosted by Radyo Singko News Anchor Laila Chikadora, the webinar aimed to separate fact from fiction and encourage more people to get vaccinated against pneumonia. Here are some of the biggest misconceptions debunked by a panel of medical experts during the webinar.

Fact or fake? You can get pneumonia from sweat or perspiration drying on your back (kapag natuyuan ng pawis sa likod).

This is fake, clarifies Dr. Joel Santiaguel, a pulmonologist and a member of the Philippine College of Chest Physicians (PCCP). Pneumococcal disease is an infection caused by a common bacteria called pneumococcus. In all, there are approximately 90 types of pneumococcal bacteria that can cause pneumococcal diseases such as pneumonia, bacteremia, and meningitis.

Pneumococcal disease can be serious and life-threatening. Pneumococcal bacteria can spread through coughing, sneezing, and direct contact with an infected person. Keep in mind, however, that not everyone who gets pneumococcal bacteria gets ill. As such, it is possible to catch pneumococcal disease from a person who appears to be healthy and asymptomatic, but is actually a carrier.

With this in mind, it’s important to practice good personal hygiene such as washing or sanitizing your hands regularly, wearing masks indoors, refraining from coughing and spitting in public, and keeping distance from people who are exhibiting symptoms, explains Dr. Santiaguel.

Fact or fake? Only old people get sick with pneumonia.

This is fake, says Dr. Santiaguel. Individuals between 18 to 49 years old are still at risk for developing pneumonia or other pneumococcal diseases, especially if they have the following conditions: diabetes, chronic heart disease, chronic kidney disease (CKD), chronic lung disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), alcoholism, cigarette smoking, and other conditions that weaken the immune system.

Individuals 50 years old and above, however, have a higher chance of contracting pneumonia. Advancing age comes with decreased immunity and certain physiological changes that may lead to poor health, thereby increasing the risk of infectious diseases like pneumonia among older people.

As such, individuals with a higher risk of developing pneumonia, including those 50 years old and above, are advised to get immunized against pneumonia as early as possible, adds Dr. Santiaguel.

Fact or fake? One pneumococcal vaccine is enough for lifetime protection against pneumonia.

This is fake, says Bryan Posadas, a trustee at the Philippine Foundation for Vaccination (PFV) and the former Program Manager of the Immunizing Pharmacists Certification Program.

There are actually two types of pneumonia vaccines available in the Philippines: the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV-13), which protects against 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria, and the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV-23), which, in turn, protects against 23 types of pneumococcal bacteria.

Based on clinical practice guidelines for adult immunization, PCV-13 is typically administered first, then the first dose of PPSV-23 should be given at least eight weeks after. Then, the second dose of PPSV-23 should be given at least five years after the first dose. “That’s why it’s important to monitor when you last received your pneumonia vaccine,” adds Posadas.

Fact or fake? Pneumonia vaccines are expensive.  

This is fake, says Posadas. While prices may vary from one pharmacy to the next, pneumonia vaccines are sold at rates and are highly regulated. As such, hospitals and pharmacies alike can’t charge exorbitant prices for pneumonia vaccines. Additionally, pneumonia vaccine prices have dropped significantly in low-income and developing markets, according to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF).

The government also offers free pneumonia vaccines, mostly for indigent senior citizens, adds Posadas. “All they have to do is go to the nearest barangay health center and ask for the available vaccination schedules. Be proactive—at the end of the day, this is for your health,” he adds. Senior citizens, as well as persons with disabilities (PWDs), are also entitled to a 20% discount on pneumonia vaccines.

Additionally, when looking at the bigger picture, the cost of pneumonia vaccines pales in comparison to the cost of getting hospitalized due to pneumonia.

According to data from the Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (PhilHealth), community-acquired pneumonia is a leading cause of claims and requests for assistance among patients. “That can reach up to PHP10 billion per year,” explains Dr. Santiaguel. “This is the burden of pneumonia, not just for individual patients, but for the government as well. That’s why it’s important to understand pneumonia and how we can prevent it.”

Aside from the direct costs of managing and treating pneumonia, there are also indirect costs, such as lost productivity and income when one gets hospitalized due to pneumonia, emphasizes both Dr. Santiaguel and Posadas.

Fact or fake? The COVID-19 vaccine is enough to protect an individual against pneumonia.

This is fake, says Dr. Santiaguel. Vaccines that protect against pneumonia and against COVID-19 are different vaccines. As mentioned above, pneumonia and other pneumococcal diseases stem from infection caused by a bacteria called pneumococcus, not COVID-19.

And while COVID-19 infection may impact and weaken the lungs, thereby making them more susceptible to pneumonia, it is not the direct cause of pneumonia. “As such, when you get your COVID-19 booster shots, please consider getting vaccinated and boosted for pneumonia as well to get the protection you need,” he adds.

Fact or fake? Pharmacists only dispense medicines and can’t administer pneumonia vaccines.

This is fake, says Posadas. Aside from dispensing medication, pharmacists also educate and give health information to patients. After seeing that there was a gap in adult immunization, pharmacists’ role expanded to include immunizing pharmacists, he explains. This way, more allied healthcare professionals can be trained and equipped to educate patients and aid in administering life-saving vaccines.

However, not all pharmacists can administer vaccines. “Since this is a new role for pharmacists, they have to be trained on how to properly administer vaccines and how to provide first aid to patients who exhibit allergic reactions to the vaccine,” explains Posadas.

Under the Pharmacy Law, the Immunizing Pharmacist Training and Certification Program provides a roadmap on how one can become a Certified Immunizing Pharmacist. “So, not all pharmacists can vaccinate—only those who have been trained, certified, and accredited as immunizing pharmacists can vaccinate patients,” he adds.

Fact or fake? Vaccines from private hospitals and clinics are better than the ones from pharmacies and community drugstores.

This is fake, says Posadas. “We have the same sources and suppliers for vaccines, so the quality is exactly the same,” he explains. And whether it’s in the hospital or community drugstore setting, pharmacists are in charge of ensuring the quality of medicines and their storage conditions. “That has been a part of our training even before our expanded role as immunizing pharmacists.”

Fact or fake? You need a prescription to get vaccinated at pharmacies and community drugstores.

This is fact, says Posadas. “Vaccines are classified as a prescription drug,” he adds. “As such, you need to be diagnosed and screened properly by a physician first to know which vaccine must be administered to you.” To ensure convenience for patients, pharmacies and community drugstores have existing partnerships with physicians who can screen patients and safely prescribe vaccines.

Go for prevention. Get vaccinated against pneumonia.

Currently, the vaccination rate in the Philippines remains low, as less than 20% of the population has received pneumonia vaccination, shares Dr. Santiaguel. “That means, there are still many at-risk individuals who aren’t protected against pneumonia. As much as possible, don’t hesitate and get vaccinated.”

Pneumonia vaccines are now available in pharmacies and community drugstores, with certified immunizing pharmacists on standby and equipped to administer vaccines. “If you have any questions, just go to your nearest drugstore and ask your pharmacist about pneumonia vaccines,” shares Posadas. “Again, don’t think about the cost of the vaccine because it’s more expensive to get sick. Let’s go for prevention.”