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Diseases > Pneumococcal
Pneumococcal Disease
questions and answers image
Questions and answers for parents, health care professionals, and people considering immunization

  1. What is pneumococcal disease?
  2. Which children are most likely to get pneumococcal disease?
  3. How prevalent is pneumococcal disease?
  4. Who is at most serious risk?
  5. What are the symptoms of pneumococcal disease?
  6. How serious is pneumococcal disease?
  7. How is pneumococcal disease spread?
  8. How is pneumococcal disease treated/cured?
  9. Can pneumococcal disease in children be prevented?

  1. What is pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease are infections caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae, also known as pneumococcus. The most common types of infections caused by this bacteria include middle ear infections, pneumonia, blood stream infections (bacteremia), sinus infections, and meningitis.

  1. Which children are most likely to get pneumococcal disease?

Young children are much more likely than older children and adults to get pneumococcal disease. Children under 2, children in group child care, and children who have certain illnesses (for example sickle cell disease, HIV infection, chronic heart or lung conditions) are at higher risk than other children to get pneumococcal disease. In addition, pneumococcal disease is more common among children of certain racial or ethnic groups, such as Alaska Natives, Native Americans, and African-Americans, than among other groups.

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  1. How prevalent is pneumococcal disease?

Each year in the US Streptococcus pneumoniae causes approximately 700 cases of meningitis, 17,000 cases of bacteremia or other invasive disease in children under the age of 5. Children under 2 average more than 1 middle ear infection each year, many of which are caused by pneumococcal infections. Streptococcus pneumoniae is the most common cause of bacteremia, pneumonia, meningitis and otitis media in young children.

  1. Who is at most serious risk? 

Children at increased risk of pneumococcal infections include those with anatomic or functional asplenia ( including sickle cell disease), patients taking immunosuppressive chemotherapy, those with congenital and acquired immune deficiency (including HIV infections), those with chronic renal disease and heathy Native American, Alaskan Native, and African American children. Children less than 60 months of age in out of home care are at 2-3 fold higher risk of experiencing invasive pneumococcal infections than children in home. 

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  1. What are the symptoms of pneumococcal disease?

Meningitis:
High fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over the age of 2 years. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take 1 to 2 days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness. In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect, and the infant may only appear slow or inactive, or be irritable, have vomiting, or be feeding poorly.

Pneumonia: 
In adults, pneumococcal pneumonia is often characterized by sudden onset of illness with symptoms including shaking chills, fever, shortness of breath or rapid breathing, pain in the chest that is worsened by breathing deeply, and a productive cough. In infants and young children, signs and symptoms may not be specific, and may include fever, cough, rapid breathing or grunting. 

Otitis media: 
Children who have otitis media (middle ear infection) typically have a painful ear, and the eardrum is often red and swollen. Other symptoms that may accompany otitis media include sleeplessness, fever and irritability. 

Blood stream infections: 
Infants and young children with blood stream infections-also known as bacteremia-typically have non-specific symptoms including fevers and irritability.

  1. How serious is pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease is a very serious illness in young children. Pneumococcal infections are now the most common cause of invasive bacterial infection in U. S. children. In the United States it is estimated that pneumococcal infections cause 200 deaths, 700 cases of meningitis, 17,000 cases of bacteremia, 4.9 million cases of otitis media (ear infections) annually in children under 5 years of age.

Meningitis is the most severe type of pneumococcal disease. Of children under 5 years with pneumococcal meningitis, about 5% will die of their infection and others may have long-term problems such as hearing loss. Many children with pneumococcal pneumonia or blood stream infections will be ill enough to be hospitalized; about 1% of children with blood stream infections or pneumonia with a blood stream infection will die of their illness. Nearly all children with ear infections recover, although children with recurrent infections can suffer hearing loss. 

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  1. How is pneumococcal disease spread?

The bacteria is spread through contact between persons who are ill or who carry the bacteria in their throat. Transmission is mostly through the spread of respiratory droplets from the nose or mouth of a person with a pneumococcal infection. It is common for people, especially children, to carry the bacteria in their throats without being ill from it.

  1. How is pneumococcal disease treated/cured?

Pneumococcal disease is treated with antibiotics. Over the last decade, many pneumococci have become resistant to some of the antibiotics used to treat pneumococcal infections; high levels of resistance to penicillin are common.

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  1. Can pneumococcal disease in children be prevented?

The FDA recently licensed a new vaccine for the prevention of pneumococcal disease in children. The new pneumococcal vaccine, Prevnar (manufactured by Wyeth-Lederle Vaccines), is a vaccine in which the serotypes are conjugated (or linked) to a protein. This new pneumococcal conjugate vaccine has been shown to be highly effective in preventing invasive pneumococcal disease in preventing invasive pneumococcal disease (such as young children. In a study of the new vaccine among 37,000 infants in California, the vaccine was over 90% effective in preventing invasive disease among the children studied. The children who received the new vaccine also had 7% fewer episodes of otitis media and a 20% decrease in the number of tympanostomy tubes (ear tubes) placed. The vaccine was also shown to decrease the number of episodes of pneumonia. 

Prevnar is indicated for use in infants and toddlers. The vaccine should be given to all infants < 24 months of age at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, followed by a booster dose at 12-15 months of age. Children who are unvaccinated and are 7 to 11 months of age should be given a total of 3 doses (2 months apart) and children age 12 to 23 months should be given a total of 2 doses at least two months apart. Most children who are 24 months of age or older only need one dose of the vaccine.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices also recommends the new pneumococcal childhood vaccine be given to children age 24 to 59 months at highest risk of infection, including those with certain illness (sickle cell anemia, HIV infection, chronic lung or heart disease). Vaccine should be considered for other children through 59 months of age with a priority for those at higher risk which includes Alaska Natives, American Indians, or African Americans and those children who attend out of home day care for more than 4 hours per week and all children aged 24-35 months.

The recently licensed pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, Prevnar , is the first pneumococcal vaccine that can be used in children under the age of 2 years. However, pneumococcal vaccines for the prevention of disease among children and adults who are 2 years and older have been in use since 1977. Pneumovax and Pnu-Immune are 23-valent polysaccharide vaccines that are currently recommended for use in all adults who are > 65 years of age and for persons who are 2 years and older and at high risk for disease such as persons with sickle cell disease, HIV infection, or other immunocompromising condition. 

Campaigns for judicious use of antibiotics may also slow or reverse emerging drug resistance found among pneumococcal infection.

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This page last modified on June 27, 2001

   

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