Dr. Richard Curtis let out a deep sigh under his breath, holding back words he couldn’t say in this setting. It was not a sight that he wanted the young children in the room to have witnessed.

He had struggled with the other doctors and nurses who crowded the room for 45 minutes doing chest compressions to try to save this middle-aged family man’s life. He wiped the sweat from his brow and cursed as he watched the man’s life slip from the patient’s eyes.

“This must be the third patient with COPD who died this month from pneumonia. He was too young to die,” he said as he looked around the room filled with misty-eyed young children. “We did everything we could, and it could have been prevented.”

Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs, which can kill a patient or make one severely short of breath requiring hospitalization and antibiotics.

Simply put, pneumonia is when the air sacs of your lung fill up with pus and can no longer deliver oxygen to the blood and the rest of the body. Symptoms include feeling short of breath, cough, and fever.

Bacteria can spread from the lungs throughout your body, including to the lining of the brain. When this happens, it is called “invasive pneumococcal disease.”

Pneumonia can affect anyone; however, it is more common and more lethal in the elderly and those with certain chronic medical conditions. Surprisingly, many cases of pneumonia can be prevented by a relatively inexpensive vaccination.

There are two types of pneumonia vaccine, Pneumovax, and Prevnar. Both vaccines were created to prevent many different common strains of bacteria that cause pneumonia.

You might be surprised to find out that Pneumovax has been available since the 1970s. Since its introduction, it has decreased the rates of death from pneumonia in the most vulnerable populations.

How well does this vaccine work? The Pneumovax vaccine has been proven to be effective. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2017), a single dose of the vaccine protects between 50 to 85 out of 100 healthy adults from invasive pneumococcal disease.

Receiving the vaccine protects those around you as well, by an effect known as “herd immunity,” meaning when enough people are vaccinated, the “herd” will protect those who can’t safely take the vaccine and results in fewer people suffering from invasive pneumonia and associated death.

Who needs a pneumonia vaccine? Everyone over the age of 65 years old should receive both pneumonia vaccines. Some people need the vaccine before they turn 65.

People with chronic medical conditions including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), also known as emphysema, chronic cirrhosis of the liver, and, chronic kidney disease need the vaccine.

Other conditions that require pneumonia vaccines are diabetes, heart failure, cochlear implants, asplenia, asthma, certain types of cancer and HIV. Alcoholics and smokers should also receive the vaccine. Some people need to have boosters of the vaccine. See your doctor to decide which vaccine(s) you need.

How do I receive the Pneumovax vaccine? Most insurance companies offer complete coverage for this preventative vaccine for those over the age of 65 and for those with the conditions listed above.

Medicare part B offers comprehensive coverage for this vaccine. Please check with your particular insurance provider to find out more regarding your coverage.

Additionally, patients do not have to have a prescription to receive the vaccine, but can just go to most local pharmacies and request the vaccine without a prescription.

For many patients without insurance cost can be a barrier to receiving the vaccine. HealthWest is here to serve patients in Pocatello and surrounding areas regardless of their ability to pay.

HealthWest has the Pneumovax vaccine available for those with financial difficulties and offers a sliding scale based on your income. Please contact Health West or your local pharmacy for additional details.

Dr. Squire Hepworth and Dr. Richard Curtis are both residents with the Idaho State University Family Medicine Residency at Health West ISU on Memorial Drive.