Atlanta For the first time, an influential government panel is recommending a vaccination specifically for smokers.
The panel decided Wednesday that adult smokers under 65 should get pneumococcal vaccine. The shot - already recommended for anyone 65 or older - protects against bacteria that cause pneumonia, meningitis and other illnesses.
Federal officials usually adopt recommendations made by the panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The vote means more than 31 million adult smokers probably will soon be called on to get the shot.
Studies have shown that smokers are about four times more likely than nonsmokers to suffer pneumococcal disease. Also, the more cigarettes someone smokes each day, the higher the odds they'll develop the illnesses.
Why smokers are more susceptible is not known for sure, but some scientists believe it has to do with smoking-caused damage that allows the bacteria to more easily attach to the lungs and windpipe, said Dr. Pekka Nuorti, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Pneumococcal infections are considered the top killer among vaccine-preventable diseases. It's a common complication of influenza, especially in the elderly, and is considered responsible for many of the 36,000 annual deaths attributed to flu.