When a common cold turns into deadly pneumococcal disease


  • Wellness
  • Wednesday, 15 Jan 2020

Pneumococcal disease mainly strikes children under five years of age and adults 65 years and above. — AFP

Pneumonia can kill – that’s the brutal truth. But it can also be prevented, with just a little prick and perhaps a bit of pain at the injection site.

Often, pneumonia starts as a simple cold, which goes down into the chest.

There, the virus causes inflammation of the lung tissue, allowing any bacteria that are there to get past the local immune defences and set up a secondary infection.

Pneumococcal diseases are infections caused by the bacterium called Streptococcus pneumoniae, which usually preys on young children and the elderly.

The bacterium can bring about different types of infections, which include lung infections/inflammation (pneumonia), meningitis (inflammation of the membrane surrounding the spinal cord or brain), sepsis (infection in the blood), sinusitis (infection of the sinuses) and otitis media (middle ear infection).

“For example, otitis media is not a serious infection, but when you get it, you need antibiotics to treat it, which then increases your risk of getting antibiotic resistance.

“Since pneumococcal disease is the number one vaccine-preventable disease in the world, getting vaccinated is the best option.

“With vaccines, you don’t need antibiotics as it also offers cross-protection beyond what it is intended for,” says GSK Vaccines Global Medical Affairs scientific affairs and public health head Dr Otavio Augusto Leite Cintra.

There are many strains of S. pneumoniae (around 90 serotypes), however, only a minority of the strains (about 20 serotypes) are usually responsible for the majority of pneumococcal diseases.

“In Brazil, studies show that the vaccine caused an 80% reduction in pneumonia in children below the age of two and a 20% reduction in meningitis.

“We have to look at the overall burden of the disease and not focus on the serotypes.

“Reduction in numbers is what matters as pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death globally,” he says.

While most healthy children can fight the infection with their natural defences, children whose immune systems are compromised due to malnutrition or undernourishment, are at higher risk of developing pneumonia.

A child’s immune system may also be weakened if he has not been exclusively breastfed.

According to data from the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, pneumonia kills more children than any other infectious disease, claiming the lives of over 800,000 children under five every year worldwide, or around 2,200 every day.

A local study revealed that Malaysia is prone to the risk of an estimated 2,809 cases of pneumococcal meningitis annually.

On Jan 3, 2020, the Health Ministry announced that the pneumococcal vaccination programme will begin in June 2020.

All babies born from Jan 1, 2020, will be eligible for the vaccination.

For children born before that, unfortunately, the government has no budget to provide them the vaccination.

From the RM30.6bil allocation for healthcare in 2020, RM60mil is provided for the pneumococcal vaccine.

Providing pneumococcal vaccination to children is also part of Pakatan Harapan’s 14th General Election manifesto, under its ninth pledge, which is to improve access and quality of the country’s health services.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the cost of antibiotic treatment for all children with pneumonia in 66 countries is estimated at around US$109mil (RM447mil) per year.

The price includes the antibiotics and diagnostics for pneumonia management.

“Vaccination is a much cheaper solution and it is generally well tolerated by healthy children.

“The side effects are usually of mild to moderate severity, and not long-lasting,” says Dr Cintra, adding that the age indication is for children aged six weeks to five years old.

You can protect your health by following these tips provided by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Cleveland Clinic in the United States:

  • Stay away from sick people.

    If you are sick, stay away from others as much as possible to keep them from getting sick.
  • Wash your hands frequently.
  • Clean surfaces that are touched a lot.

    Germs can be transferred from an object or surface to you if you touch your nose or mouth without washing or sanitising your hands first.
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue, your elbow or your sleeve.
  • Limit contact with cigarette smoke or quit smoking.
  • Avoid excessive consumption of alcohol.
  • Manage ongoing medical conditions.

    Conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart disease could weaken your immune system, which could increase your chance of infections.
  • Eat a healthy diet, exercise and get enough rest.

Healthy habits keep your immune system strong.


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