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The federal government has an opportunity to help immunize American seniors against a deadly form of pneumonia, but physicians need further action from the government before they are able to effectively deploy this new, life-saving vaccine in Virginia.

Members of the Medical Society of Northern Virginia are all too aware that pneumonia and pneumonia-related disease are a deadly threat to residents of the Commonwealth. Nearly 32 percent of seniors in Virginia are unvaccinated against pneumonia. The problem is even worse in the District, where nearly 46 percent are not vaccinated against the disease. Pneumonia and pneumonia-related illnesses kill more than 25,000 Americans older than 50 each year. According to the FDA, more than 300,000 are hospitalized annually as well. This amounts to a staggering $1.8 billion in health care costs because of pneumonia every year.

At the end of 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new vaccine — Prevnar 13 — to help prevent pneumonia and invasive pneumonia-related disease and help keep older Americans healthy. Recognizing the grave threat pneumonia poses — particularly to older, more vulnerable populations — the FDA gave Prevnar 13 fast-track approval. To underscore the importance of its expedited approval of the vaccine, the FDA released a statement lauding the arrival of another weapon in the fight against pneumonia and invasive disease among seniors.

Surprisingly, however, FDA approval did not mean seniors gained immediate access to the vaccine, and the life-saving vaccine will be effectively shelved unless another federal agency acts quickly. Prevnar 13 cannot broadly help patients until it also clears the Centers for Disease Controlís Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The ACIP provides guidance to physicians on how vaccines should be used, and this guidance is what insurance companies use to determine what they will cover. The problem is that the ACIP only meets three times per year, and unless it makes a recommendation on Prevnar 13 at its next meeting on Feb. 23, this potentially life-saving vaccine will go unused. Without a vote from ACIP, insurance companies wonít cover the vaccine. Moreover, it will difficult for physicians to even determine who should receive it. We simply canít afford to leave thousands of vulnerable Virginians unvaccinated against pneumonia.

Pneumococcal pneumonia has a fatality rate of 5 to 7 percent, and that number may be much higher among the elderly. Across the country, there are 73 million Americans who should have received a pneumonia vaccine have not. The FDA approved Prevnar 13 under an accelerated pathway for a reason. This vaccine has the potential to prevent a disease that results in about 200,000 visits to the emergency room each year. However, the government needs to give physicians and insurance companies the go-ahead before this life-saving treatment can help patients.

The MSNVA hopes the ACIP takes swift and decisive action. Even one dayís delay is too long.

Claudia Tellez is the executive director of the Medical Society of Northern Virginia.