Thousands of elderly people face a greater risk of contracting pneumonic this winter due to a vaccination shortage. The condition kills around 30,000 patients a year, but in October, Public Health England warned that stocks were running low.
Since then, GPs have found it increasingly difficult to obtain the PPV23 vaccine, meaning vulnerable people have been put at higher risk throughout the colder months. Drug firm MSD – the only manufacturer of the jab – has said that it is likely to be the end of March before supplies are replenished.
All over-65s are entitled to get the vaccination on the NHS, but official advice has been that doctors should prioritise the most vulnerable. This means patients with chronic heart conditions and lung or liver diseases are being offered it before the healthy elderly.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, told the Daily Mail: “This is concerning. Pneumonia remains the sixth biggest cause of death in the UK and prevention is vital in protecting the most vulnerable in our society, such as those with an existing lung condition, children, pregnant women and the elderly.”
Pneumonia can often result as a complication of other illnesses, such as flu, and can develop in just a few hours. While not eliminating the risk of pneumonia completely, the PPV23 injection substantially decreases it, because it protects against the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, which is the most common cause of pneumonia.
Usually, around two million people – including elderly and vulnerable patients – would get the jab each year, with the results lasting up to two decades. It is not yet known how many people have actually been given the vaccine this winter, but the practice of administering it alongside the flu jab has been stopped.
Previously, the two injections have been given at the same time. As well as being a more efficient use of staff and patient time, it reflected the fact that often the two conditions are linked. By abandoning the practice, doctors have been able to stretch their stocks further.
A circular from Public Health England offering advice to GPs said: “Given the shortage, practices should deliver the vaccine programme throughout the year - rather than linking it to the flu programme. This will help ensure demand is more consistent across the year. For practices that do procure stock, the priority should be those newly diagnosed with conditions in the high-priority groups.”
There are more than 90 different strains of pneumococcal bacterium, but of these, just ten are responsible for the most serious cases of infection. The PPV23 vaccine protects against all ten, as well as 12 others, meaning it provides a high level of protection for most people.
Relatives of the elderly who have been denied the vaccine may wonder how the shortage has come about. It’s a result of a number of factors, including an increased global demand and a competitor of MSD withdrawing from the market in 2016.
An alternative vaccine – called PVC13 – is given to young children and is not in short supply. Unfortunately, it is not suitable to be administered to the elderly as a substitute for PPV23.