Pneumococcal Disease: A Vaccine Preventable Threat

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The bottom line: Pneumococcal disease is one of the leading causes of illness among children and seniors. The potentially deadly pneumococcal bacteria causes pneumonia, but it also causes meningitis, sinusitis, sepsis, and ear infections. However, a pneumococcal vaccine can protect both children and adults.

Mega Doctor News

As originally published by Mega Doctor News in its newsprint edition June 2018

Patients rarely know it by name, but pneumococcal disease kills more Americans than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. “[Pneumococcal bacteria] cause lung infections (pneumonia), brain infections [meningitis], sinusitis, blood infections, and ear infections,” said Dr. Elizabeth C. Knapp, an Austin pediatrician. “Early in my pediatric career, I cared for a 3-year-old girl who had an ear infection — her crying did not improve with the antibiotics [because] the bacteria had spread to her brain.” The bacteria can cause very serious conditions. “People die from pneumococcal diseases,” she said.

Pneumonia is one of the bacteria’s most severe illnesses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 900,000 Americans contract pneumonia each year and as many as 7 percent of those sick enough to be hospitalized die from it.

In 2013, 3,700 Americans died from pneumococcal meningitis and bacteremia. Two years later, a 2015 CDC report said 95 percent of pneumococcal deaths in the U.S. were adults. Worldwide, about 500,000 children younger than five die from pneumococcal illnesses each year, making it one of the top killers of young people, according to the World Health Organization.

Symptoms vary depending upon which pneumococcal disease strikes. They include high fever, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, and vomiting. After the disease strikes, the illness can cause hearing loss, brain damage, or death.

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Pneumococcal vaccines prevent these complications for both children and adults. Physicians can advise which shot is best for a given patient. A four-dose series is standard for children; a two-dose series is standard for adults.

In the 1940s, physicians believed antibiotics could cure pneumococcal bacterial infections, so there was little call for a vaccine. However, some people still died after treatment. The first vaccine was introduced in 1977, but it did not adequately protect children. However, a childhood vaccine introduced in 2000 has caused a nearly 80-percent drop in invasive pneumococcal disease among U.S. children.