Most people who are at risk of pneumonia don't know it

ONE of Australia's most common killers is largely misunderstood including by those most at risk of contracting the potentially fatal illness.

New research released on Tuesday shows only one in every eight Queensland adults at risk of contracting pneumonia know they are at a high risk.

According to the Bureau of Statistics, pneumonia-like illnesses were ranked the 13th leading cause of death in Australia in 2011.

Those most at risk of catching the infection, including the elderly, smokers and chronic illness sufferers, are overwhelmingly unaware of their susceptibility to pneumonia and how to protect themselves against the potentially fatal condition, the Public Perception of Pneumonia survey results show.

Professor Robert Booy, head of Clinical Research at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, said only one in five of those in the at risk group knew vaccination was their best defence.

"This finding is particularly concerning, given the annual incidence of pneumococcal pneumonia rises exponentially between the ages of 50 and 80 years, to nearly 200 per 100,000," he said.

Pneumonia causes 1.6 million deaths worldwide each year, about 2500 in Australia in 2011, and is spread through inhaling infected droplets in the air as a result of an infected person coughing or sneezing.

Two-time pneumonia suffer, Dawn - who chose to with hold her surname - was first hit with the debilitating infection seven years ago.

"It took me three weeks to recover and I was completely bedridden. The diagnosis of pneumonia came as a shock to me, as I had no idea I was at risk," she said.

The avid dancer was diagnosed with emphysema in 1995, which unbeknown to her put her at risk of pneumonia.

She contracted the lung infection again in 2009.

The 72 year old's experience has prompted her to change her lifestyle to prevent another bout of pneumonia.

"Nowadays I prioritise my health, eat well and keep extremely active. I also discuss ways to reduce my risk of re-acquiring pneumonia with my GP, including vaccination,' she said.

The findings from the recent survey indicate less than one third of the at risk population have been vaccinated against pneumonia.

Mater Hospital medicine and consultant respiratory physician Dr Simon Bowler highlighted the public ignorance about the difference between the flu and pneumonia.

"While pneumonia often comes after a cold or flu, the research survey reveals 70% of the adult at-risk population is unable to differentiate between the flu and pneumonia,1 while only 30% correctly understand that pneumonia may be caused by bacteria, a virus or fungi, as opposed to the flu, which is viral," Dr Bowler said.

The Lung Foundation Australia is brandishing the recent research to encourage support of a Love Your Lungs public health campaign during Pneumonia Awareness Week from May 6.

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