Pneumococcal disease is caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. There are 90 types of Streptococcus pneumoniaeproducing a range of symptoms from relatively minor to very serious. Some types are more likely to cause infections in particular parts of the body than others, such as the sinuses (sinusitis) and in the ear (otitis media or middle ear infection).

What are the symptoms?

Local pneumococcal infection can cause ear infections (otitis media) and sinusitis.

Early stages of serious pneumonia may appear like the flu, with aches, pains and fever, but can progress very quickly and usually result in hospitalisation.

Symptoms of serious pneumonia are:

  • fever and chills
  • chest pain
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • rapid or grunting breathing.

How is it spread?

Pneumococcal bacteria are carried in the nose and throat and are easily passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and close contact. Not everyone who catches or carries pneumococcal bacteria gets sick from it.

Prevention

It is extremely difficult to avoid coming into contact with such a common bacteria but good hygiene practices, covering coughs and sneezes, hand washing, and avoiding contact with smoking and crowded living conditions may help.

Babies born to mothers who have high levels of pneumococcal disease protection (antibodies) may be born with some protection from the disease. However, by two months of age almost one third of the maternal antibodies have gone and the majority by seven months of age.

Babies and young children cannot develop their own effective protection when they are exposed to pneumococcal bacteria in our environment until about two years old. They can develop effective protection when they receive the pneumococcal vaccine Prevenar 13® that is provided for free as part of the National Immunisation Schedule.

On-time immunisation at 6 weeks, 3 months, 5 months and 15 months of age is the best way to protect babies and young children from pneumococcal disease.