Pneumococcal Vaccines Offer Protection from Serious Childhood Illnesses

By Amy Amin Patil, MD | Pediatrics 

When it comes to preventing illness, vaccines stand at the forefront of our ability to protect patients from diseases. In terms of protecting children, starting in the year 2000 with the addition of pediatric pneumococcal vaccines, our ability to protect young patients from serious and potentially life-threatening infections was increased.

Vaccines strengthen our body’s immune response. After a vaccination, our immune system creates antibodies that can protect us from future exposure to a disease – the ultimate in prevention.

When the PCV7 pneumococcal vaccine was introduced in 2000, it offered protection from seven types of bacteria that cause a range of serious childhood diseases. That protection was expanded in 2010, when PCV13 was approved, addressing six additional types of disease-causing bacteria.

Pneumococcal Vaccines Offer Protection from Serious Childhood Illnesses

Pneumococcal diseases are contagious; they spread through respiratory fluids, like saliva or mucus. The label “pneumococcal” most often brings to mind pneumonia, which certainly is one serious illness addressed by the PCV13 vaccine. In addition, however, the vaccine offers protection from pneumococcal bacteria that cause other illnesses, some of which are also life threatening.

As well as pneumonia, pneumococcal bacteria cause invasive diseases such as meningitis and blood infections. Invasive diseases are particularly dangerous because they infect our bodies in areas that are usually germ-free. When that happens, our bodies are ill equipped to fight back, leaving us especially vulnerable.

For young children, this risk is acute: The CDC reports that for children under five, meningitis causes death in one out of fifteen cases.

Unfortunately, these serious diseases have become increasingly resistant to antibiotics. At this point, as many as three out of ten cases do not respond to antibiotic medicine. That makes the preventative power of vaccines all the more important.

The PCV13 Vaccine Provides Protection Starting Early

The CDC includes PCV13 as part of its routine childhood vaccination schedule.

Babies begin the four-dose series when they are two months old, with the second and third shots given at four months and six months. The final booster shot is given when children are between 12 and 15 months old.

In addition to providing protection from pneumonia and serious invasive diseases, the PCV13 vaccine also increases children’s resistance to sinus and ear infections, half of which are caused by pneumococcal bacteria. For children at risk of repeated ear infections this is especially beneficial, as chronic infections can require more invasive treatments, such as ear tubes.

For Vulnerable Children, the PPSV23 Vaccine Offers Later Protection, Too

After a complete four-dose series of the PCV13 vaccine, most healthy children will not need additional pneumococcal vaccinations.

But after the age of two, some children – those with cochlear implants or who suffer from certain chronic health conditions, such as diabetes or disorders affecting their organs or immune systems – will also benefit from the additional protection offered by the PPSV23 pneumococcal vaccine.

As its name indicates, this vaccine provides protection from additional types of bacteria.

For children older than two who are at risk, the appropriate PCV13 vaccination should be completed first. Older children may have received the earlier PCV7 vaccine, in which case they’ll be given a one-time dose of PCV13.

Subsequently, with a waiting period of at least eight weeks between vaccinations, the CDC recommends that at-risk children receive one dose of PPSV23. For the most vulnerable children – in particular those with immune deficiency caused by disorders such as sickle cell disease or HIV – a second dose is recommended after five years.

Preventative Impact: Pneumococcal Vaccines Save Lives

In addition to researching the safety of pneumococcal vaccines, the CDC has also examined their protective impact: In the three years after the introduction of PCV13, it estimates that 30,000 cases of invasive pneumococcal disease were prevented – and 3,000 lives were saved.

For doctors, parents, and caregivers, the availability of the PCV13 and PPSV23 vaccines offers further reassurance that babies and children can experience healthy lives.