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What is Pneumococcal Vaccine?

By Helga George
Updated May 17, 2024
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Pneumococcal vaccine is a vaccine that is used against a type of bacterium that commonly causes pneumonia. It can also cause other diseases, such as meningitis and systemic blood diseases. One form of the vaccine is given to young children, who are very susceptible to pneumococcal pneumonia. Another form is used to prevent this pneumonia in adults who are at particular risk for contracting the disease.

Pneumonia is a disease that is characterized by inflammation of the lungs. Worldwide, it kills over four million people each year. Globally, pneumonia is the major cause of death for children under five years old. All totaled, this disease kills more people than other serious diseases, like tuberculosis, AIDS, or malaria. There are many forms of pneumonia, but they are often preventable by vaccination.

Vaccines introduce either pieces of a pathogenic organism or the inactivated organism to prime the immune system. The system then learns to recognize them and produce antibodies to fight off the germ. Then, when the pathogen attempts to cause infection, the immune system remembers the parts of the pathogen and produces antibodies to neutralize the infection.

The bacterium Streptococcus pneumonia commonly lives in the upper respiratory tract. Sometimes, for unknown reasons, it becomes pathogenic and causes pneumococcus pneumonia. It is the most common type of bacterial pneumonia, and most often causes disease in the very old and very young. This type of pneumonia is preventable with a pneumococcal vaccine. While generally highly effective, this vaccine does not prevent infection in everyone.

There are several types of pneumococcal vaccines. There are also different types of pathogenic strains of S. pneumonia, and the vaccines are effective against a number of these. One type of vaccine is expressly for children under age two, who require a special vaccine. Their immune system does not recognize the capsule of sugars surrounding the bacteria that triggers an immune response in adults.

Researchers have developed what is known as a conjugate vaccine for these children. This links the capsule sugars to a carrier protein. The carrier protein helps the child’s immune system recognize the pneumococcus bacteria. Children of this age should get a series of doses. Adults should only receive one dose, except for those who receive a booster shot when they are older.

Adults should receive a pneumococcal vaccine if they are 65 years or older. Smokers and people over age 19 with asthma should also receive the treatment. There are a number of medical conditions that indicate which patients should be vaccinated. This includes diabetes, hepatitis, alcoholism, various cancers, HIV infection, lung disease, and heart disease, among others. Pneumococcal vaccine side effects generally include the common vaccine side effects of soreness at the injection site, fatigue, headache, or a general feeling of discomfort.

There is some evidence that people living in the same household as a person who has received the pneumococcal vaccine will also receive some protection against this form of pneumonia. One problem with these vaccines is that they are developed for the strains prevalent in the United States and Europe. In the developing world, some of the strains are different. For this reason, vaccines may not give as much protection in those countries.

There are other vaccinations that can prevent pneumonia that is caused by other organisms. Influenza vaccine can also help prevent pneumonia. Whooping cough, chicken pox, and measles vaccinations can also help prevent people from getting this lung disease.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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