Welcome! I’m honored to introduce you to my guest today, Dr. Regina Benjamin, who is the former U.S. Surgeon General under President Obama.
- There has been some confusion about the position of US Surgeon General, so can you describe the position and tell us what it entails? “Most people associate the US Surgeon General with the warnings on tobacco products about the dangers. That’s not all we do, though. We are responsible to communicate the best health science that we have. The Surgeon General is also the leader of US Public Health Services. We are considered part of the military. I like to say we carry needles, and not guns.”
- Are you appointed or elected to the position? “The US Surgeon General is nominated by the president, and then confirmed by the Senate. The Senate also assigns the position for a 1-4 year term. I was fortunate to be confirmed unanimously without a hearing.”
- Can you explain the focus of your mission today? “Part of the division of Science and Communication is to get the word out about health information and raise awareness. I’m partnering with Pfizer to get the word out about pneumococcal pneumonia, especially to older Americans, who are at a greater risk.”
- Most people probably don’t understand that vaccinations are free under Medicare. Can you explain? “Vaccinations are included in preventive services, and so they are free and without a co-payment, even for those with private insurance. These vaccines are available at doctors’ offices, clinics, health centers, and drugstores. The goal is to make them easy and accessible.”
- Is there a season in which pneumococcal pneumonia is more prevalent than others? “Not really—this disease is not weather-related. It is more related to the immune system of the patient. For some reason, African-Americans seem to be at a higher risk.”
- Can an older person get more than one vaccination at a time, like a flu shot AND the pneumococcal pneumonia shot? “It varies according to the person, so it’s important to talk to your doctor. In general, the vaccinations probably can be given together if there aren’t other special conditions.”
- What are the signs and symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia? “Anybody can get this disease, even a very healthy person. Those over age 65 are at a greater risk. The symptoms include a sudden onset of high fever, shortness of breath, coughing, and chest pain. The average hospital stay is about five days and it can even cause death. Prevention is the key!”
- For pneumococcal pneumonia, is there a live strain of the bacteria in the vaccination, or is it a synthetic form? “Most vaccinations today have an ‘attenuated’ form, which means they are live but not active. The goal is for your immune system to ‘think’ you have had the disease when you haven’t, so the antibodies are produced. There are different types and different brands of the vaccine. Your doctor can help decide which form of the vaccine is best for you.”
- What are the best ways to keep from getting this disease? “Handwashing is the best preventive. You should also exercise, eat well, and live a healthy lifestyle. Pneumococcal pneumonia is spread by coughing and sneezing, or by touching surfaces where someone has coughed or sneezed. We can’t avoid people completely, so that is why the vaccine is so important.”
- Dr. Benjamin, what was the most wonderful thing about your job as US Surgeon General? “My favorite thing was getting to meet people in their communities and talk about the prevention of disease and the promotion of good health.”
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