Health chiefs have failed to purchase new pneumonia vaccines despite warnings that the NHS jab currently offered to over-65s is less effective, The Mail on Sunday has learned.
The potentially life-threatening lung infection, which can hit people who are suffering from severe flu or other respiratory illnesses, contributed to nearly 1,400 deaths in England and Wales in the first week of this year – almost twice as many as were caused by covid.
Over-65s in the UK are usually jabbed with Pneumovax 23, which is usually given just once. However, it is only 65 per cent effective, and when the Government’s vaccine advisers met last March they warned that the protection it provides ‘wanes rapidly’.
In documents seen by this newspaper, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) concluded that this meant the jab ‘may not achieve optimal protection’ and proposed that the Government considers purchasing an improved vaccine.
LIFE-THREATENING: A 3D scan of lungs affected by pneumonia
Over-65s in the UK are usually jabbed with Pneumovax 23, which is usually given just once (stock photo)
Pneumonia can be caused by a group of bacteria called streptococcus pneumoniae, of which there are about 90 strains which range from causing mild to severe symptoms.
Two new vaccines proven more effective than Pneumovax 23 have been approved for use in the UK. Apexxnar, created by Pfizer – which also created one of the Covid vaccines – protects against 20 strains, and Vaxneuvance, from US firm Merck, provides strong protection against 15 of the most dangerous strains.
Both jabs are used in the US instead of Pneumovax 23. But despite dire predictions that flu cases would soar in the UK this winter, no action was taken by NHS health chiefs to purchase either.
Experts say that this inaction has directly contributed to the rising number of pneumonia deaths this winter – and many more are expected.
Professor Adam Finn (pictured), a member of the JCVI, said the pneumonia vaccine offered by the NHS is not ‘great’ but is ‘cheap
‘[Pneumovax 23] is not a particularly great vaccine,’ says Professor Adam Finn, pediatric expert at the University of Bristol and a member of the JCVI.
‘It prevents some of the more severe cases, but only for a short period. The main reason we use it is because it’s cheap and has been around for a long time.’
Pneumonia is contagious, and the bacteria is mostly spread when infected people talk, cough or sneeze.
While anyone can catch it, babies and the elderly are most at risk of being badly affected.
Studies show over 65s are ten times more likely to end up in hospital with pneumonia than those aged 18-50.
About a third of cases come from a virus – such as flu or Covid – which makes its way into the lungs.
However, the majority of severe cases of pneumonia are caused by bacteria and are likely to severely affect people who are suffering from other diseases, and therefore have a weakened immune system.
Once in the body, pneumonia bugs can cause further lung damage and even trigger sepsis – a potentially fatal condition in which the immune system overreacts to an infection and starts to attack healthy tissue.
‘We see pneumonia most often in elderly patients who are in hospital with flu,’ says intensive care specialist Dr Ron Daniels, chief executive of the charity UK Sepsis Trust.
Pneumonia symptoms and steps to take
- Adults over 65 are offered a single pneumonia vaccine, often alongside the annual flu jab. Babies, children and vulnerable adults also get one. If you have a long-term health condition your GP may decide to offer you a booster dose every five years.
- Not getting vaccinated can drastically increase the risk of hospitalization and death from pneumonia, so doctors urge everyone to take up the current jab.
- Symptoms are similar to flu. They include a fever, a dry cough, trouble breathing, a rapid heartbeat, sweating, shivering, a loss of appetite and chest pain.
- If you suspect you have pneumonia, contact your GP or call 111. Call 999 if you or someone you care for is struggling to breathe, coughing up blood, has blue lips or a blue face, becomes confused or collapses.
‘The flu damages the lungs and stresses the immune system, allowing the bacteria to take hold.’
Studies show that although Apexxnar provides protection against fewer strains of pneumonia than the NHS’s choice, Pneumovax 23, it creates far more long-lasting protective antibodies – defensive proteins that fight off disease.
Vaxneuvance was also found to provide an improved immune response to two pneumonia strains that are not covered in the current vaccine used for children, Prevenar 13.
‘We should be using the best vaccine for the job if we want to protect the public from this disease,’ says Dr Daniels.
‘We have seen more and more people in recent months who have been jabbed but are sadly still dying of pneumonia. This is often because the protection from the jab has waned over a number of years.
‘That’s on top of the many otherwise-healthy vaccinated people getting seriously unwell and needing emergency treatment.’
Prof Finn argues that the reason the Government may be hesitant to order a new jab is its cost – the newer vaccines cost roughly £50 a dose, while Pneumovax 23 is just £17.
‘There is no appetite to spend large amounts of money now that the worst of the Covid pandemic is over,’ he adds.
All experts agree that anyone over 65 should still go for the current vaccine when offered, as it does give some protection.
But Dr Daniels says: ‘We need to look at offering an improved vaccine to the most high-risk groups at the very least. These are patients who are living with serious illnesses, such as cancer, or have just undergone surgery.
‘And they are the ones who are dying of pneumonia on our wards, despite being vaccinated. We need to do more to protect them.’
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of immunization at the UK Health Security Agency, said last night: ‘These newer vaccines may have potential to add protection against a few additional strains, and the JCVI is currently reviewing potential use in the UK.’