Pneumococcal disease

Pneumococcal disease is an acute infection caused by the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria.

It can cause a variety of severe illnesses including:

  • lung infection (pneumonia)
  • infection around the brain (meningitis)
  • blood poisoning (septicaemia).

Pneumonia is the most common in the Northern Territory (NT).

The bacteria can also cause less severe but troubling illness such as sinus and ear infections.

Many healthy people carry the bacteria in their nose and throat, especially young children. The bacteria can be spread to others by direct oral contact such as kissing or contact with articles soiled with infected mouth or nose secretions.

Occasionally, the bacteria will cause an infection by invading the body or blood stream. It is uncommon to get infected from a person who is sick with pneumococcal disease.

The time between being infected with the bacteria and becoming sick is uncertain but may be as short as one to three days.

The symptoms vary depending on which part of the body is affected but usually a fever will be present.

Pneumonia presents as:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • fever
  • lack of energy
  • sometimes chest pain.

Meningitis can cause:

  • a headache
  • stiff neck
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • drowsiness.

Anyone can get pneumococcal disease, but some groups have a higher risk of getting sick with pneumococcal disease including:

  • young children
  • the elderly
  • any person with a weakened immune system or a chronic illness
  • people who smoke.

Having a respiratory viral infection such as influenza may also increase the risk of being infected.

Pneumococcal disease is treated with antibiotics under a doctor's care.

There are more than 90 different types of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria. There are conjugate and polysaccharide pneumococcal vaccines, each of which is used in different circumstances.

The vaccines work in slightly different ways and protect against a different number of the pneumococcal bacteria.

Conjugate vaccine (Prevenar 13®)

All children are offered this vaccine free at six weeks and at four and 12 months of age. Young children with medical conditions associated with an increased risk of invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD) and all Aboriginal children in the NT receive an extra free dose at six months.

Children over five years old and adults with medical conditions associated with the highest increased risk of IPD are also recommended to receive a single dose of Prevenar 13® vaccine.

Polysaccharide vaccine (Pneumovax 23®)

Adults aged 65 years and over and all Aboriginal people aged 15 years and over in the NT are eligible to receive a free Pneumovax 23® vaccine.

The vaccine is also recommended for people from the age of four with conditions associated with an increased risk of IPD.

Side effects of the vaccine

Serious side effects are rare. Up to 10% of children may have some redness at the injection site or develop a mild fever.

In adults, local redness and soreness at the injection site for the first couple of days is common.

To find out more about the pneumococcal vaccination recommendations, talk to your doctor or go to the Australian Government Department of Health website.

Providing antibiotics or vaccinating people who have recently been in contact with a person infected with pneumococcal disease is not usually required (during outbreak situations vaccine may be administered to household contacts).

Lifestyle factors such as overcrowding contribute to chronic illnesses and should be addressed.

Smoking and smoke exposure increase the risk of pneumococcal disease and should be avoided.

Yearly influenza vaccination will reduce the risk of pneumococcal disease as it can be a complication that follows influenza.

For more information, contact your nearest Centre for Disease Control.

Last updated: 09 October 2018

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