Pneumococcal Disease: A Vaccine Preventable Threat

June 5, 2018

Patients rarely know it by name, but pneumococcal disease kills more Americans than all other vaccine-preventable diseases combined. “[Pneumococcal bacteria] cause lung infections (pneumonia), brain infections [meningitis], sinusitis, blood infections, and ear infections,” said Elizabeth C. Knapp, MD, an Austin pediatrician. “Early in my pediatric career, I cared for a 3-year-old girl who had an ear infection — her crying did not improve with the antibiotics [because] the bacteria had spread to her brain.” The bacteria can cause very serious conditions. “People die from pneumococcal diseases,” she said.

Pneumonia is one of the bacteria’s most severe illnesses. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 900,000 Americans contract pneumonia each year and as many as 7 percent of those sick enough to be hospitalized die from it.

In 2013, 3,700 Americans died from pneumococcal meningitis and bacteremia.  Two years later, a 2015 CDC report said 95 percent of pneumococcal deaths in the U.S. were adults. Worldwide, about 500,000 children younger than five die from pneumococcal illnesses each year, making it one of the top killers of young people, according to the World Health Organization.

Symptoms vary depending upon which pneumococcal disease strikes. They include high fever, shortness of breath, headache, nausea, and vomiting. After the disease strikes, the illness can cause hearing loss, brain damage, or death.

Pneumococcal vaccines prevent these complications for both children and adults. Physicians can advise which shot is best for a given patient. A four-dose series is standard for children; a two-dose series is standard for adults.

In the 1940s, physicians believed antibiotics could cure pneumococcal bacterial infections, so there was little call for a vaccine. However, some people still died after treatment. The first vaccine was introduced in 1977, but it did not adequately protect children. However, a childhood vaccine introduced in 2000 has caused a nearly 80-percent drop in invasive pneumococcal disease among U.S. children.

Find more information on pneumococcal diseases and vaccinations on the TMA website.

This release is part of a monthly TMA series highlighting contagious diseases that childhood and adult vaccinations can prevent. TMA designed the series to inform patients of the facts about these diseases, and to help them understand the benefits of vaccinations to prevent illness. Visit the TMA website to see plans to prevent pneumococcal disease and how funding is used to increase vaccination rates.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 51,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. Be Wise — ImmunizeSM is a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and medical students, and the TMA Alliance. It is funded in 2018 by the TMA Foundation thanks to H-E-B, TMF Health Quality Institute, Pfizer Inc., and gifts from physicians and their families.

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association.


TMA Contacts:  
Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear[at]texmed[dot]org 
Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper[at]texmed[dot]org  

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Last Updated On

February 12, 2020

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