Women with Heart Disease: Ask Your Doctor about Getting Pneumococcal Vaccines

Barbara Fleeman spent two years feeling sick and weak with no answers until a cardiologist finally gave her a diagnosis of heart disease. Having an answer, going on treatment, and eventually becoming a WomenHeart Champion helped improve her life, and now Barbara never takes her health for granted. Yet, after her diagnosis, she was in the hospital for broken ankles when a nurse asked if she’d like the pneumococcal vaccine. Barbara didn’t know what pneumococcal disease was, and the nurse didn’t press it, so she said no. Later, she learned that women with heart disease are at increased risk and that the vaccines are important. Barbara educated herself, and now she’s committed to getting all her recommended vaccinations, including the pneumococcal vaccines.

As Barbara learned, adults over 65 years old and people with chronic conditions – including many women with heart disease – are at increased risk for diseases like pneumonia and meningitis. Vaccines are an important part of preventive care and managing your health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently recommends that those at increased risk receive two types of pneumococcal vaccine – together, these help protect against over two dozen strains of pneumococcal bacteria.

Fortunately, because both pneumococcal vaccines are recommended by the CDC, Medicare covers 100 percent of the cost, as do most private insurances. It is important that the CDC maintain its recommendation for both vaccines, thus ensuring that coverage remains and that cost is not a barrier for people who are insured and need access to this care.

Each year in the United States, pneumococcal disease kills thousands of adults and even more end up in the hospital. Pneumococcal disease can lead to severe infections of the lungs (pneumonia), bloodstream (bacteremia), and lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis). Yet, vaccination rates in the United States remain low, particularly for people of color. According to CDC data for 2015, these are the rates of those who have ever received a pneumococcal vaccine:

  • 64 percent of adult women
  • 63 percent of adults age 65 and over
  • 23 percent of high risk adults age 18-64
  • 50 percent of Black adults age 65 and older
  • 22 percent of Black adults with high risk age 19-64
  • 49 percent of Asian adults age 65 and older
  • 5 percent of Asian adults with high risk age 19-64
  • 7 percent of Hispanic adults age 65 and older
  • 19 percent for Hispanic adults with high risk age 19-64
  • 3 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native adults age 18 and older

Given the low immunization rates, it is clear that those at risk must be informed and ask their provider whether they need the pair of vaccines. Women with heart disease are all too familiar with the need to be vigilant about adhering to all recommended treatments, including preventive care like vaccines, and taking extra steps to advocate for yourself. Ask your health care provider – what should you be doing to care for your health, including what vaccines do you need.

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