Study says vaccine may prevent artery-clogging illness; but even if it doesn't, it's still a good idea

By Mark Reddig, associate editor | 6/5/2003

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, the old saying goes. So how much is two ounces of prevention worth?

The answer could lie in a recent study by Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine. Those researchers found that in mice, the vaccine for pneumonia helped reduce atherosclerosis, the buildup of fatty deposits that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.

Anything that may help reduce heart problems is good new for truckers. While there are no scientific studies on how common heart problems are in truckers, John Siebert, project manager at the OOIDA Foundation, has been collecting information on the cause of truckers’ deaths.

“Of all the reported deaths of members, heart attacks are by far the most numerous listed,” Siebert said. Of the truckers included in Siebert’s informal survey, 37 percent died as a result of heart failure.

But Jean Ellis, vice president of member services in the Boston headquarters of Visiting Nurses Association, said those touting the study as a way to cut that number may be jumping the gun just a little. Although the study does offer some additional hope to those who suffer cardiovascular illnesses, Ellis warned that the study was not definitive evidence that the vaccine helps prevent atherosclerosis.

“It didn’t seem like there was a clear cause and effect here,” Ellis said. “It was just an indication that in mice studies that it showed that decrease in atherosclerotic buildup or prevention. I’m not sure I’ve seen any follow through from CDC or other experts advising the use of pneumococcal vaccine in that capacity.

“I think we’ve taken a leap from that one study to making that an indication to get pneumococcal vaccine,” she added.

That’s not to say that Ellis thinks people shouldn’t go out and get their flu and pneumonia shots. Her organization, The Visiting Nurses Association, focuses on helping people get influenza shots, but the main complication caused by influenza, Ellis said, is pneumonia. And not enough people are getting either type of shot.

“It’s so underimmunized, the adult population in America, in all immunization areas, but particularly in pneumonia and influenza as well,” she said. “The most recent information that I’ve heard – and it does vary state by state – but you’re looking at around 28 percent of the population that’s recommended to get the shots” actually gets them.

That group, Ellis said, includes people over 65 years of age, people who have heart or kidney problems, people with immunity problems and people who have other certain chronic diseases. And that’s a list that includes plenty of OOIDA members. The U.S. Census Bureau says the median age of the U.S. population in 2000 was 35.3 years, the highest ever. But according to John Siebert of the OOIDA Foundation, truckers average age is even higher: OOIDA’s membership averages 48 years of age. 

Ellis said truckers who get a flu and pneumonia shot “would put themselves in a whole lot better place in general health,” including complications such as pneumonia, meningitis and other serious illnesses.

Traditional medical thought is that people should need only one pneumonia shot, though Ellis said that if you can’t remember getting one in the past 10 years, you should probably get another, a recommendation she said most doctors were comfortable with.

The vaccine combats six common types of pneumonia, but does not protect against all types. It’s far better to get a shot and prevent the illness in the first place than to try to fight it after catching it.

“Most pneumonias are treatable by antibiotics, but we’re seeing much more antibiotic-resistant organisms out there these days,” she said. “That’s why it’s that much more important if you’re high-risk or over 65 particularly to get that pneumococcal vaccine.”

If the study from San Diego is right, however, that’s even better news for those who get the shots. The researchers, who results were published in the journal Nature Medicine, showed that the shot caused an immune response in the mice’s bodies, reducing atherosclerosis by 21 percent in the laboratory mice. The rodents included in the study are used as models for coronary disease.

“Researchers have used this same bacterial immunization for decades to study an antibody response important for defense from infection,” Dr. Gregg Silverman a coauthor and professor of medicine at UCSD, said. “No one previously suspected that there might be relevance to other types of diseases, especially a disease like atherosclerosis.”

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