Streptococcus pneumoniae is no longer an unknown entity. It is more commonly known as pneumococcus, and it is known to cause various diseases, including pneumonia, bacteraemia, otitis media, and the dreaded meningitis.
Despite hearing about the severity of the diseases pneumococcus can cause, many parents are still not trully aware of the consequences of these diseases, and fail to take the necessary steps to prevent their son or daughter from falling sick with a pneumococcal infection.
Meningitis, bacteraemia, and pneumonia can be fatal, especially if the child affected is less than two years old.
There are generally two types of pneumococcal infections; invasive and non-invasive. Invasive infections occur in the blood, or inside a major organ such as the lungs, and tend to result in serious complications. These include pneumonia, which is a result of the bacteria invading the lungs; bacteraemia, where the pneumococcus enters the blood stream; and meningitis, which is infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
Non-invasive pneumococcal infections may be less serious, but they occur more frequently. Pneumococcus is a common cause of middle ear infection (otitis media) in children. Other infections include sinusitis, which is an infection of the sinuses.
Look out for these symptoms, which could be signs of a dangerous disease:
Pneumococcal pneumonia: Severe shaking chills, high fever, cough, shortness of breath, rapid breathing, chest pain, nausea, vomiting, headache, tiredness, muscle aches.
Bacteraemia: Fever, headache, muscular aches and pains - could lead to septic shock, which is a sudden drop in blood pressure and can be life-threatening.
Meningitis: Severe headache, vomiting, high fever, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, confusion, sleepiness.
Otitis media: Ear pain , difficulty sleeping or responding to sounds, loss of balance, headache, fever, drainage of fluid from the ear, loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhoea, sore throat.
Sinusitis: Headache, facial tenderness, pressure, pain, fever, cloudy and discoloured nasal drainage, a feeling of nasal stuffiness, sore throat or cough.
In some cases, pneumococcal disease such as pneumonia may not show any dangerous warning signs or symptoms. Safinaz, a mother of five, was shocked the day she discovered that her six-month-old son, Aidan Asyraf, was suffering from pneumonia.
"Aidan is usually sent to a nearby nursery when I go to work (as a lecturer at a local university). He was off colour with a slight fever, flu, and cough, over a course of three weeks. When he was down with a slight fever and flu, he would go to the nursery for two days, and then stay home for another three days. Having had four other children before him, I did not suspect anything was amiss when I took him to the doctor, who prescribed some antibiotics to treat his fever and flu," recounted Safinaz.
Aidan also suffers from asthma, just like his mother, and often used a nebuliser during the times he was down with flu and had difficulty breathing. However, his condition did not improve, and when he coughed, or breathed in, he did not have the usual wheezing sound asthmatics commonly make.
Furthermore, even with the nebuliser, his breathing did not seem to improve, which prompted Safinaz to take him to her paediatrician, as she suspected her son's condition was no longer a simple illness.
"On the day I brought Aidan to see his paediatrician, he was running a particularly high fever. Our paediatrician suggested taking an x-ray, as he suspected it might be H1N1. However, the results of the x-ray confirmed it was pneumonia.
"Aidan's left lung was almost three-quarters filled with fluid. I was still pretty much in denial, as I really couldn't digest the fact that my son was suffering from such a dangerous disease like pneumonia. He was also still being breast-fed exclusively, which made it even harder to believe.
"Aidan was first put on antibiotics, and was monitored constantly. On the third day of his admission into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), another x-ray was taken. This time, the results were even worse. Apparently the antibiotics were not having much effect on the bacteria, and Aidan's left lung was now almost completely blocked.
"Our paediatrician then suggested a small surgery, whereby a tiny tube would be inserted into the chest so that the fluid could be drained out. At first, I was reluctant to agree to the procedure, as I was afraid of any complications from it. However, Aidan's paediatrician convinced me that this would be the best way," elaborated Safinaz.
The road to recovery
The minor surgery took about 30-45 minutes, in which a small hole was made in Aidan's left chest and the fluid drained out through a tube. It took almost three days for the fluid to be completely drained. What was even more shocking to Safinaz was that the fluid was not clear, as she expected it to be. Instead, because the infection was quite bad, the fluid actually contained pus. It was during this time Safinaz came to finally realise that her son's condition was severe, and the trouble he must have had trying to breathe with a heavily congested lung.
Aidan was in hospital for nearly a month. It was a difficult period for Safinaz, as not only did she have to be there to look after Aidan, she also had four other children whom she worried about. Safinaz's mother stepped in to look after her four grandchildren, while Safinaz and her husband tried to cope with looking after Aidan.
She also had to reschedule all her classes at the university until Aidan was seen fit enough to be discharged.
Some advice for parents
"I would just like to tell all parents out there, especially those with young children aged five years and below, to vaccinate their children with the pneumococcal vaccine. Despite it being an optional vaccine here in Malaysia, the risk of getting pneumococcal diseases is actually quite high. It is better to be safe than sorry, especially when it comes to our children.
"Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, the benefits of vaccination are much greater than any side effects the vaccine might cause. For parents who think that they may save money by opting not to take the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), think again. The cost of treating a pneumococcal disease is even higher," advised Safinaz.
The safest bet
Although pneumococcal diseases can be treated, diagnosis may be late, causing a delay in the commencement of treatment, as is seen in Aidan's case. And the fact is, most fatal cases can actually be prevented through vaccination.
Vaccination is a vital means of preventing many diseases, thereby avoiding unnecessary illness, disability and even death.
Vaccination is recommended for everyone, as pneumococcal disease can affect anyone at any age. However, there are certain groups of people who are at a higher risk of getting the disease, such as:
·Adults aged 65 years and above.
·Children aged two to 24 months, especially those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes, lung, heart, kidney or liver disease.
·Those with immune systems weakened by conditions such as cancer or HIV infection.
·Those without a functioning spleen, or suffer from sickle cell disease.
Some parents may worry about any potential side effects of the vaccine. Rest assured that they are few and far between, and often only associated with pain, redness and swelling at the injection site.
Vaccination remains the best defence against diseases that have the potential to kill or maim. As parents, you have the option to avoid such fatalities and serious complications.