There are vaccines for pneumococcal disease, an umbrella phrase that encompasses any disease caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. This bacteria is one of the leading sources of illness among children globally, as it can cause pneumonia, meningitis, inner ear infections, and many other illnesses. Collectively such conditions can be referred to as pneumococcal disease, the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide. Symptoms of pneumococcal pneumonia include cough, shortness of breath, fever, and chest pain. Symptoms of meningitis include headaches, muscle stiffness, and disorientation, among others. However, many people can have the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria in their systems without falling ill, but such carriers can spread the disease to others via coughing and sneezing. As with many health conditions, people who are immunocompromised remain at increased risk of infection. Antibiotics are used to treat pneumonia, but certain strains of the bacteria have evolved resistance to these drugs, and antibiotic resistance represents a serious and growing public health threat.
On the bright side, pneumococcal diseases can be prevented with vaccines. The first pneumococcal vaccine, manufactured by Merck, was licensed in 1977 and protected against 14 strains of the bacteria; a second, which protected against 23 strains, was launched in 1983. An additional vaccine targeted to children was pioneered in 2000. The polysaccharide vaccine is developed from the outer coatings of the bacteria. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has been critical in getting the pneumococcal vaccine to low-resource settings, helping introduce the vaccine to routine immunization programs in more than 60 countries. This support has helped immunize more than 143 million children around the world. However, as of 2017, the global average for pneumococcal vaccine coverage was 44%, so there is much work yet to do.
Check out this blog from our Executive Director Martha Rebour on last year’s World Pneumonia Day, in which she discusses scaling up pneumonia prevention efforts worldwide!