Pneumococcal vaccine

The pneumococcal vaccine (PCV) provides some protection against a form of bacterial meningitis caused by pneumococcal bacteria and other conditions such as severe ear infections.

As well as providing some protection against a form of bacterial meningitis, PCV also helps protect against other conditions such as severe ear infections and pneumonia caused by pneumococcal bacteria. This vaccine does not protect against all types of pneumococcal infection and does not protect against meningitis caused by other bacteria or viruses. 

The PCV vaccine is given to babies at two and four months of age with a booster dose given between 12 and 13 months. The vaccine can be given at any time and one injection provides years of protection.

A different pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for everyone aged 65 and over, and everyone with serious heart, chest, kidney and other long-term health problems.

Questions and answers:

Won’t giving my baby MMR and PCV at the same time overload their immune system?

No. From birth, babies’ immune systems protect them from the germs that surround them. Without this protection, babies would not be able to cope with the tens of thousands of bacteria and viruses that cover our skin, nose, throat and intestines at all times. This protection carries on throughout life. In theory, a baby could respond effectively to around 10,000 vaccines at any time. The baby’s immune system can and does easily cope with the MMR and pneumococcal vaccines at the same time.

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What is pneumococcal infection?

Pneumococcal bacteria can cause serious illness, such as pneumonia and meningitis. Young children under two years old and people over 65 have a higher chance of becoming unwell with pneumococcal infection. However, older people are more likely to suffer serious long term health consequences, including death from pneumococcal infection.

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Why should I worry about pneumococcal infection?

Pneumococcal infection is the second biggest cause of bacterial meningitis in the UK and Ireland. Pneumococcal vaccination is recommended for certain groups of people who are at greater risk of infection as a result of their age or other predisposing health problems.

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Who needs a pneumococcal vaccination?

The PPV vaccine is recommended for many of the same people who receive an annual flu vaccination and other selected groups of people at higher risk of developing complications from pneumococcal infection.

Unlike the flu vaccine which is given every year, the pneumococcal vaccine is only usually given once. The Scottish Government provides pneumococcal immunisation for all people aged 65 years and over. For those aged under 65, GPs may at their own discretion provide immunisation for people with the following serious medical conditions:

  • Problems with the spleen either because the spleen has been removed or does not work properly, e.g. sickle cell disorder and coeliac disease.
  • Chronic lung disease including chronic bronchitis or emphysema.
  • Serious heart conditions.
  • Severe kidney disease.
  • Long-term liver disease.
  • Diabetes requiring medication.
  • Lowered immunity due to disease or treatment eg HIV, chemotherapy for cancer, or long-term oral steroids for conditions such as asthma.
  • Cochlear implants.
  • Individuals with cerebrospinal fluid leaks.
  • Children under five years of age who have previously had invasive pneumococcal disease such as meningitis or bacteraemia.

Children under the age of two years are also now offered pneumococcal vaccination as part of the routine childhood immunisation programme. In children a different vaccine is used - the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine – as it is more effective in this age group.

Some children are at an increased risk from pneumococcal infection (see list above). All at risk children should be offered PCV vaccine according to the routine childhood immunisation programme and additionally at risk children should be offered PPV vaccine when they are aged two years or over. If you are not sure about your or your child’s health or need further advice, speak to your doctor, health visitor, practice nurse or pharmacist.

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How is pneumococcal infection spread?

Up to 60% of children carry pneumococcal bacteria in the back of their nose and throat, and constantly pass them around by coughing and sneezing and close contact. Usually this does not result in serious illness. In a susceptible person pneumococcal infection can cause bronchitis, ear and sinus infections, pneumonia, life-threatening infection of the blood (septicaemia), and meningitis.

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How serious is pneumococcal meningitis?

About 85% of people who get pneumococcal meningitis recover, usually without any long term problems. However, survivors are more likely to develop complications, including deafness, seizures and long-term brain damage than other bacterial causes of meningitis. In many cases, the after effects are temporary or improve over time. However, for young children in the early stages of recovery, it can be difficult to tell at first if problems will be long-lasting or temporary.

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Why shouldn’t everyone have pneumococcal immunisation?

The maximum risk of serious illness is mainly in those aged over 65 and those under 65 with any of the medical conditions mentioned above. As part of the routine childhood immunisation programme children are also offered a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) at 2, 4 and between 12 and 13 months of age.

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How effective is the vaccine?

Pneumococcal vaccine (PPV) reduces the risk of infection by:

  • 84% in people with diabetes
  • 73% in people with chronic heart disease
  • 65% in people with chronic lung disease
  • 75% in people older than 65 years who do not have a specific problem with their immune system.

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Are there any possible side effects?

Out of ten babies immunised, one or two may get some swelling, redness or tenderness at the injection site, or get a mild fever.

Any reactions are generally minor and disappear within a few days. The vaccination does not contain live bacteria and cannot cause an infection.

Read more about the common side effects of immunisations that might occur in babies and young children up to five years of age.

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Last reviewed on 29 February 2016

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