Most parents have heard of strep throat, but one family of strep, Streptococcus pneumoniae, or pneumococcus, deserves special attention. Pneumococcal disease is the most common cause of vaccine-preventable death in the United States, killing more people than all other vaccine- preventable diseases combined. These bacteria present significant danger for both the youngest and oldest members of our families. Each year in the U.S., pneumococcus causes an estimated
7 million cases of ear infection in infants and young children;
up to 570,000 cases of pneumonia, approximately one-fifth of which occur in infants and young children;
61,000 cases of bacteremia (that is, bacteria in the bloodstream that can lead to high fevers, pneumonia, or meningitis);
3,000 to 6,000 cases of meningitis; and
more than 40,000 deaths.
In the 1880s, scientists first began to understand pneumococcus. In the 1940s, shortly after penicillin proved to be successful in treating certain bacterial infections, a study showed that a pneumococcal vaccine could prevent some infections in military recruits. By 1977, a vaccine was licensed that contained 14 different strains of pneumococcus, and in 1983 a 23-strain vaccine was licensed, but only for children older than 2 and for adults.
Unfortunately, children younger than 2 years bear much of the burden of pneumococcal disease. The incidence of invasive pneumococcal disease is 145 per 100,000 children under age 2; 54 per 100,000 adults older than 74; and 5 to 25 per 100,000 in the intervening ages.
A hundred years after pneumococcus was first isolated and shown to be a major cause of pneumonia, development began on a vaccine that could prevent pneumococcal disease in infants and young children. The vaccine was recommended by ACIP in October 1999 even before it was licensed by the FDA.
This information is excerpted from the book Vaccinating Your Child: Questions and Answers for the Concerned Parent (Peachtree Publishers, Ltd., 2000). The book’s authors are Dr. Sharon G. Humiston, a pediatrician and clinical researcher at the CDC and the University of Rochester, and Cynthia Good, an award-winning journalist and host of the television show “Good for Parents”.