Pneumococcal disease is one of the leading causes of serious illness among Australian children under two years of age and in older adults.
Older Australians are especially at risk of death from this disease. Indigenous communities, in particular those from central Australia, are at an increased risk of the disease. It is estimated that the disease kills around one million people worldwide every year.
Pneumococcal disease can cause a number of different illnesses ranging from pneumonia (infection of the lungs) to meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain) and infections of the blood and bone.
There are at least 90 different strains of the bacteria, but only some of these cause pneumococcal disease. In Australia, there are vaccinations available that help protect you against some of these strains.Vaccinations are free for children and adults over the age of 65 through the National Immunisation Program (NIP). If you have not received the minimum recommended dosage of the pneumococcal vaccine, speak to your healthcare professional about catch up options.
Key disease information
Pneumococcal disease refers to the group of illnesses that can be caused by bacteria commonly known as pneumococcus.
Most pneumococcal infections are mild, however some can cause serious disease, complications and even death.
From the upper airways, pneumococcus can cause infections in different parts of the body, such as the ear (otitis media, one of the most common pneumococcal diseases in children), sinuses, joints or bone. Sometimes it causes serious illness like:
• meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain)
• pneumonia (infection of the lungs – one of the most common pneumococcal diseases in adults)
• septicaemia (blood infection).
In adults, pneumonia with bacteraemia (presence of bacteria in the blood) accounts for 14% of cases of pneumonia in the community.4
In children, middle ear infection is a common complication. In fact pneumococcus is the main cause of middle ear infection in children, found in around 50% of cases. Although the least common presentation in children, pneumococcal meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain) is a serious complication, which is fatal in around 30% of cases.3
Pneumococcal bacteria are carried in the nose and throat of healthy adults and children. It can be passed from one person to another through sneezing and coughing. Many people (including children) become carriers of the bacteria at some time or other, but not all will become sick.
The symptoms of pneumococcal disease depend on the part of the body that is infected.
- Fever and chills
- Rapid or difficult breathing
- Chest pain
- Confusion/low alertness (older adults)
- Stiff neck
- Photophobia (eyes being more sensitive to light)
- Poor eating/drinking, low alertness and vomiting (babies)
- Low alertness
- Confusion or disorientation
- Shortness of breath
- High heart rate
- Fever, shivering or feeling very cold
- Extreme pain or discomfort
- Clammy or sweaty skin
Middle ear infection (Otitis Media):
- Ear pain
- Red, swollen ear drum
Joints and bones (septic arthritis):
Serious pneumococcal disease is most common in children under two years of age and older adults over the age of 65 years.
Vaccines for pneumococcal disease are provided free as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP) < https://beta.health.gov.au/topics/immunisation/immunisation-throughout-life/national-immunisation-program-schedule> as follows:
- Infants are vaccinated at two, four and twelve months of age
- Adults are vaccinated again once they turn 65 years of age
- Other people may also require additional vaccinations if they have a chronic disease or if they are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander
Speak with your healthcare professional for further information regarding vaccination for pneumococcal disease.
While vaccination can protect you from becoming infected, to prevent pneumococcal disease spreading, remember to practice good hygiene:
- Always cover your coughs and sneezes
- Wash your hands often
Pneumococcal disease is not the same as meningococcal disease. While the sites of infection can be the same (such as infection of the lining of the brain – or meningitis), the terms ‘pneumococcal’ and ‘meningococcal’ describe different types of bacteria that infect the body.
Pneumococcal disease is caused by the bacteria known as pneumococcus, while meningococcal disease is caused by a bacteria called meningococcus. Both of these bacteria may be found living naturally in the nose and throat of some people without causing symptoms, while in others, the bacteria can become invasive and cause disease.
The vaccines for pneumococcal disease and meningococcal disease are different, and being vaccinated against one of these diseases does not provide protection against the other. For more information about meningococcal disease and its prevention, speak to your healthcare professional and visit our meningococcal disease page.
Sources & Citations
- Australian Government. Department of Health. National Notafiable Diseases Surveillance System. Number of notifications for all diseases by year, Australia, 2001 to 2019 and year-to-date for 2020. Available at: http://www9.health.gov.au/cda/source/rpt_2.cfm (accessed 17 March 2020).
- Victoria State Government. Better Health Channel. Pneumococcal disease. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/pneumococcal-disease (accessed 17 March 2020).
- Australian Government. Department of Health. The Australian Immunisation Handbook -Pneumococcal disease. Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/pneumococcal-disease (accessed 17 March 2020).
- Yin JL et al. Med J Aust 2017;207(9):396–400.
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumococcal disease. Clinical features. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumococcal/clinicians/clinical-features.html (accessed 17 March 2020).
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Pneumococcal disease. Symptoms and complications. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pneumococcal/about/symptoms-complications.html (accessed 17 March 2020).
- Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Travelers Health – Pneumococcal disease. Available at: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/diseases/pneumococcal-disease-streptococcus-pneumoniae (accessed 17 March 2020).
- Victoria State Government. Better Health Channel. Meningococcal disease. Available at: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/meningococcal-disease (accessed 17 March 2020).
SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0149(1) - Date of preparation April 2020Show All