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Pneumococcal Disease - A Growing Threat To Children's Health


Each year, more than one million children throughout the world die as a result of pneumococcal disease - a group of illnesses caused by the bug Streptococcus (S.), pneumoniae, also known as pneumococcus. Young children are particularly susceptible to this condition and it is a major cause of death worldwide.

It can cause a host of deadly illnesses including meningitis (infection of the brain covering), bacteremia (blood infection), pneumonia (lung infection), otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) and sinusitis (infection at the sinuses). Pneumococcal disease can lead to hearing loss, learning disabilities, speech delays, paralysis, brain damage and sometimes death.

Your Child Is At Risk

Several factors increase a child's risk of contracting a pneumococcal infection. Infants from birth to 24 months are at highest risk, due to their low levels of circulating pneumococcal antibodies. Children with disorders of the immune system and chronic diseases such as sickle cell disease, HIV chronic lung and heart diseases face an increased risk of infection.

Many preschool children are carriers of pneumococcus. Children who attend daycare (any setting outside the home where a child spends four hours or more a week with at least two unrelated children under adult supervision) are much more likely to become infected due to their increased exposure to the bacteria which are transmitted person-to-person via respiratory droplets through sneezing, coughing or close contact.

Recognising The Symptoms

Being able to recognise the signs and symptoms of pneumococcal disease and taking prompt medical attention could mean the difference between life and death. The symptoms of pneumococcal disease vary by illness:

  • Bacteremia symptoms may include high fever associated with other non-specific signs of illness.
  • Meningitis symptoms include fever, severe headache, nausea, vomiting, stiff neck and photophobia (avoidance of light due to pain) in older children, while in infants, fever and non-specific signs of illness are more frequent symptoms.
  • Pneumonia symptoms include sudden shaking, chills, cough, fever, and chest congestion.
  • Acute otitis media symptoms may include earache, fever, and muffled hearing. In infants and young children, frequent tugging at the ear may signal acute otitis media.
  • Sinusitis symptoms include low-grade fever, runny nose and cough,

It is important to remember that these symptoms can appear in any order and not everyone gets all of these symptoms. When in doubt, always trust your instincts and seek medical attention immediately.

The Critical Need for Disease Prevention

With increasing antibiotic resistance, treatment of pneumococcal illnesses has become more difficult. According to experts,  there is a critical need to focus on prevention of the condition, in light of the emergence of antibiotic resistance and the severe consequences of the disease.

To complicate matters, diagnosis of pneumococcal infections is tricky - most of the symptoms are similar to those of the common flu - and involves arduous tests such as X-rays or taking cultures from blood test. This process to confirm the infection could take a day - a long time to wait for a disease that can deteriorate quickly.

A previously healthy child could be in intensive care fighting for his life within a few short hours of the initial symptoms. These challenges make vaccination all the more crucial. As with many other childhood diseases, vaccination is recognised as the most effective and practical means of protecting children.

Countries such as the UK, the US, Australia, South Korea and France have already made it mandatory for all young children to receive the vaccination. Despite its threatening consequences, pneumococcal disease can be effectively prevented. Do not hesitate to see your paediatrician and find out more about vaccination against pneumococcal disease and how it can protect your child.

What Is Pneumococcal Disease?

Pneumococcal disease is a group of illnesses caused by the bug Streptococcus (S.) pneumoniae, also known as pneumococcus. It can cause a host of deadly illnesses including meningitis (infection of the brain covering), bacteremia (blood infection), pneumonia (lung infection), otitis media (inflammation of the middle ear) and sinusitis (infection of the sinuses).

Why Is It Such A Serious Concern?

Pneumococcal disease can lead to hearing loss, learning disabilities, speech delays, paralysis, brain damage and sometimes death. Young children are particularly susceptible to this condition and it is a major cause of death worldwide. Each year, more than one million children throughout the world die as a result of p oneumococcal disease.

Why Are Children Extremely Susceptible To This Disease?

Several factors increase a child's risks of contracting a pneumococcal infection. Infants from birth to 24 months are at highest risk, due to their low immunity. Children with disorders of the immune system and chronic diseases face an increased risk of infection. Children who attend daycare are also much more likely to become infected due to their increased exposure to the bacteria. It can easily be transmitted person-to-person via respiratory droplets through sneezing, coughing or close contact.

What Are The Treatment Options?

Generally, antibiotics are prescribed. However, it is important to note that with increasing antibiotic resistance, treatment of pneumococcal illnesses has become more difficult.

Why Is it Important To Prevent Pneumococcal Infections?

Diagnosis of pneumococcal infections is not always easy. This is because most of the symptoms are similar to those of the common flu - and diagnosis involves arduous tests such as X-rays or taking cultures from blood test. In addition, a previously healthy child could be in intensive care fighting for his life within a few short hours of the initial symptoms.

What Is The Best Way To Protect My Child Then?

Vaccination is recognised as the most effective and practical means of protecting children. With the challenges posed by increasing antibiotic resistance and difficulties in diagnosing pneumococcal disease, vaccination has become even more crucial. Countries such as the US, Australia, UK, France and several other European countries have already made it mandatory for all young children to receive vaccination.

What Kinds Of Vaccines Are Available For Prevention Of Pneumococcal Disease?

A pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine has been available for a number of years and is effective in preventing disease in older children and adults. A pneumococcal polysaccharide conjugate vaccine is also now available which is able to stimulate the immune systems of infants and young children to create a long-term immune system memory. Despite its threatening consequences, pneumococcal disease can be effectively prevented. Do not hesitate to see your paediatrician and find out more about pneumococcal vaccination and how it can protect your child.

Is My Child At Risk?

Infants and young children are particularly susceptible to pneumococcal disease. The following questions will help determine your child's risk factors:

  • Is your child below five years of age?
  • Does your child attend daycare or spend four or more hours a week with two or more unrelated children under adult supervision?
  • Has your child had a history of middle ear infection or taken antibiotics within the previous three months?
  • Does your child live in a household where someone smokes?
  • Does your child suffer from any chronic diseases such as sickle cell disease, HIV, diabetes, asthma, chronic lung and heart diseases, and chronic renal insufficiency?
  • Does your child suffer from disorders of the immune system, e.g. asplenia, or had organ or bone marrow transplant?

If you answered "Yes" to any one of the above questions, ask your doctor about how you can protect your child against pneumococcal disease.

 

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