Pneumonia Vaccine May Not Protect RA Patients

Like many RA patients, I take certain drugs that suppress my immune system and therefore make me more vulnerable to infections. To help counteract that risk, I’m careful about washing my hands, staying away from sick people, and getting my flu shot every year. My first pneumonia vaccination was given at my rheumatologist’s office as a condition to starting a biologic.

Is the pneumonia vaccine effective for RA patients?

It was, therefore, somewhat alarming to read a recent study wherein the pneumonia vaccine wasn’t any more effective than the placebo in protecting RA patients from contracting pneumonia.

In fact, there were actually two more vaccinated patients that got pneumonia than those who got the placebo. This is even more serious when you consider that pneumonia ranks fairly high in the cause of death of those of us who have RA. Considering that the researchers started out with the hypothesis that the vaccine was effective in preventing pneumonia in RA patients, I’m sure the outcome of the study was quite startling to them as well.

Types of pneumonia vaccines available

There are two pneumonia vaccines in use in the US today: PCV13 and PPSV23 for short. The PCV13 vaccine combats 13 kinds of pneumonia while the PPSV23 targets 23. PPSV23 is recommended for high-risk people older than 65 and younger people who have various medical conditions. The study used the broader PPSV23. Approximately half of the 900 patients were given the vaccine (464 patients) and the other half of the patients (436) were given a salt solution.

In the half that received the vaccine, 17 contracted pneumonia and 15 of the non-vaccinated population contracted the disease. There was, therefore, no discernable difference between the two groups. It seemed to make no difference whether a patient received the vaccine or not.

Biologics & steroids do not predict a pneumonia diagnosis

Many vaccines work by causing your body to build up antibody defenses against various diseases. My initial reaction when I read the headline was that perhaps biologics or other medications kept RA patients from building this immune response.

However, according to the research, neither using biologics nor glucosteroids (such as prednisone) seemed to predict whether or not the patient came down with pneumonia.

So what does this mean for the RA patient?

Honestly, I don’t know. There’s obviously more research that needs to be done on the pneumonia vaccines as well as others. I’ve never had any issues with getting the pneumonia vaccine.

For most people, it’s a one-time vaccination but for people at high-risk (older individuals and those with a medical condition), many doctors recommend a five-year and 10-year booster. I’ve had my five-year booster and I’ll talk to my doctor about getting the 10-year update next year when it’s due.

Like all decisions surrounding your treatment plan (including preventative treatments such as vaccines), you should discuss pneumonia and other vaccines carefully with your doctor.

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