Pneumococcal disease

Pneumococcal disease covers different diseases that are caused by the pneumococcus bug. It can cause various infections ranging from sinusitis and ear infections to life-threatening infections such as pneumonia, septicaemia or meningitis. These can be mostly prevented by vaccine or treated with antibiotics.

Key points

  1. Vaccination with pneumococcal vaccine helps to protect against pneumococcal disease. All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against pneumococcal disease as part of their free childhood immunisations.
  2. Pneumococcal disease is caused by a bug called Streptococcus pneumoniae (also called pneumococcus). This is one of the many bugs found in the throat of healthy people where it does not cause any problems. But it can spread from there to cause infections in different parts of your body.
  3. If the infection is in your lungs, blood or brain, you may have some of the following: sudden fever, shaking/chills, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, stiff neck, disorientation and sensitivity to light. You will need urgent hospital treatment.
  4. Those most at risk of getting sick are babies, those over 55 to 65 years of age and those with weakened immune systems. It is more common among Māori and Pasifika populations.
  5. Pneumococcal disease is treated with antibiotics.
Act quickly!  If you have a baby who is sick with sudden fever, shaking/chills, cough, shortness of breath, chest pain, stiff neck, disorientation and sensitivity to light take action immediately. Urgent hospital care is usually needed as babies can get very sick very quickly.

What causes pneumococcal disease?

Pneumococcal disease are infections caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium. The infections can range from mild to severe, even life-threatening such as infections of the lungs (pneumonia), blood (septicaemia) and brain (meningitis). 

Pneumococcal bacteria is one of the many bugs found in the throat of healthy people where it does not cause any problems. It is easily passed from person to person by coughing, sneezing and close contact. Not everyone who catches or carries the bacteria gets sick. 

Who is most at risk of getting pneumococcal disease?

Those most at risk of serious disease caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria are:

  • babies under 1 year but children under 5 years are also at risk
  • people with a weakened immune system 
  • adults over 55 to 65 years of age
  • Māori and Pasifika.

Being in daycare or around people who smoke, and living with lots of other people can also increase your risk of getting pneumococcal disease.

What are the symptoms of pneumococcal disease?

Depending on whether the infection is in your lungs, blood or brain, you may have some of the following:

  • sudden fever
  • shaking/chills
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • stiff neck
  • disorientation
  • sensitivity to light.

You will need to see a doctor immediately for treatment. A baby or young child may only have fever and be irritable. 

Find out about the symptoms of the following conditions that can be caused by Strep pneumoniae

How is pneumococcal disease diagnosed and treated?

Your doctor will diagnose and treat pneumococcal disease based on your symptoms and test results. Read about the diagnosis and treatment of conditions caused by Strep pneumoniae:

How can I prevent pneumococcal disease?

Vaccination of babies, adults over 65 years of age and those at increased risk due to underlying medical conditions, can greatly help to prevent pneumococcal disease and bacterial spread.

It is very difficult to avoid coming into contact with the bacteria that cause this illness, so as well as being vaccinated you can reduce your chances of becoming infected or infecting others by:

  • regularly washing your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand gel
  • covering your nose and mouth with your arm or a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • avoiding smoking and reducing contact with smokers.

Why is vaccination so important?

Babies and young children are at higher risk of infection because their immune system is not fully developed. They can be protected by having the pneumococcal vaccine. The rate of pneumococcal disease in children under the age of 2 years has halved since vaccination was introduced. 

Pneumococcal vaccine is free as part of the National Immunisation Schedule in New Zealand for babies at 6 weeks, 3 months, 5 months and 15 months of age. Although having at least 2 doses offers some protection, they’re not fully protected until they’ve had all 4 doses.

  • If your baby misses these dates, they can have catch-up pneumococcal vaccines. Talk to your doctor or nurse about this.
  • The vaccine is given by injection in the arm or leg, depending on the age and size of the child.
  • Children and adults with particular medical conditions that increase their risk of pneumococcal disease are eligible for funded pneumococcal immunisation.  
  • If you are over 65 years of age, ask your doctor about having the pneumococcal vaccine. It’s one of the best ways to help you stay well over winter.

Read more about the pneumococcal vaccine

Learn more

Pneumococcal disease The Immunisation Advisory Centre
Pneumococcal disease Ministry of Health, New Zealand, 2017
Prevention – making a decision about vaccination Ministry of Health, New Zealand, 2017

References

  1. Childhood immunisation HealthEd, New Zealand 
  2. Pneumococcal disease Immunisation Handbook 2017, New Zealand
  3. Pneumococcal vaccine for adults: Pneumovax23 BPAC, 2011 
Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Dr Osman David Mansoor, Medical Officer of Health, Hawke’s Bay DHB Last reviewed: 18 Jan 2018