By Paul Downey

San Diego’s elderly poor are forced to face down myriad challenges as they navigate daily life. Finding and maintaining affordable housing, paying for daily necessities such as food, and accessing health care are part of the constant balancing act that many seniors perform simply to make ends meet. Unfortunately, seniors — especially those living with chronic conditions — are also at greater risk of contracting infectious illnesses such as pneumococcal disease.

Pneumococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can cause pneumonia, meningitis and bloodstream and ear infections. Pneumococcal bacteria can spread from person to person through direct contact with saliva or mucus. A person carrying pneumococcal bacteria may not even feel sick, meaning a person can spread the disease without even knowing it.

According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, nearly one million adults in the U.S. get pneumococcal pneumonia, and about 5 to 7 percent of them – or about 18,000 adults – will die. Although anyone can get pneumonia, some Californians are more at risk, including adults 65 and over; those living with a chronic disease such as asthma, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, COPD, or heart, liver or kidney disease; and smokers.

The best way to avoid getting pneumonia is to get vaccinated. The good news is that there are safe and effective vaccines available. The CDC recommends that all adults 65 years and older — and all adults age 19 to 64 with certain risk factors — get vaccinated.

Despite these recommendations, many at-risk seniors have not yet received the pneumococcal vaccine. Why? Likely for many reasons, including inconvenience and lack of access, but also a general lack of awareness. Many seniors simply do not know what pneumococcal disease is or that a vaccine exists. Many adults of all ages still have the misconception that vaccines are just for children.

Serving Seniors is a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving San Diego seniors living in poverty. We are committed to helping educate California seniors about the dangers of vaccine preventable illnesses and to providing information about how seniors can access adult-appropriate vaccines.

Vaccines are the best way for seniors to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as pneumococcal disease. We encourage all seniors to have a conversation with your health care provider about which vaccines are appropriate for your age. Living a full and independent life starts with living a healthy one.

Paul Downey is President and CEO of Serving Seniors, a San Diego-based nonprofit.

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