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The Pneumococcal Vaccine: Health 101

The pneumococcal vaccine protects your child against Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria, which can cause serious infections. Usually found in the nose and throat, pneumococcal bacteria may be passed from person to person, causing ear infections, pneumonia (an infection of the lungs), meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord), and bacteremia (an infection of the blood). Children under 2 are most at risk for having serious cases of the disease.

Before the vaccine, Prevnar, became available to children under age 2 in 2000, pneumococcal diseases caused more than 700 cases of meningitis, 13,000 blood infections, and around 5 million ear infections annually in the United States. These infections may be treated with antibiotics, but many of these bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, making them very difficult to treat and increasing the importance of prevention.

The pneumococcal vaccine schedule includes shots given at 2, 4, 6, and between 12 and 15 months of age. The pneumococcal vaccine is safe to be given along with other vaccines.

Children who didn't receive the vaccine before age 2 can still be vaccinated. And children between 2 and 5 who have not already gotten vaccinated and fall into the following high-risk groups should definitely receive it:

  • Children who attend daycare. (They're two to three times more likely to experience a serious infection than children who don't attend daycare.)
  • Children who have chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and sickle cell disease.
  • Children who have HIV/AIDS or other diseases that suppress the immune system.
  • Children who are of Alaskan Native, American Indian, or African American descent.

While the pneumococcal vaccine is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended childhood vaccinations, children who fall into the following categories should not receive it:

  • Kids who've had a severe allergic reaction (including difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, a fast heart beat or weakness or dizziness) to a previous pneumococcal shot.
  • Kids who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the pneumococcal vaccine is safe for your child.

Contracting a pneumococcal disease is far more dangerous than any side effects from the vaccine. Though allergic reactions are possible, the pneumococcal vaccine causes only mild side effects.

  • Up to about 33 percent of kids will experience fever over 100.4 F., taken rectally. (Up to two percent will have fever over 102.2 F.)
  • Up to 25 percent of kids will experience redness, swelling, or warmth near the shot site.

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after he receives a shot, call your doctor right away.

Bacterial meningitis tends to be more serious than other forms of meningitis and may lead to brain damage, blindness, deafness, and even death for children under age 5 -- and pneumococcal infections are the second-most common cause of bacterial meningitis in children (meningococcal infection is the first).

The pneumococcal vaccine is very effective at reducing your child's risk of contracting this serious infection. Research by the CDC found that the vaccine prevents 96 percent of pneumococcal disease in healthy children under age 5. It also found that the vaccine is highly effective at preventing tough-to-treat cases caused by antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. And a recent study found that rates of pneumococcal disease in children under 5 have dropped by nearly 80 percent in the years since the vaccine Prevnar was introduced. Additionally, the pneumococcal vaccine has been shown to help prevent ear infections and reduce the need for ear tubes.

Sources: Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Baby magazine advisory board member. Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases. Medline Plus: a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health section on Pneumococcal Vaccination. CDC sections on Pneumococcal Disease and Pneumococcal Vaccination.


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