The following information comes from Dr. Susan J. Rehm, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Disease.
What is pneumococcal disease?
Pneumococcal disease is a serious group of bacterial infections caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae. The bacteria itself is relatively common and is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets. The reason it is so important to protect against pneumococcal disease is that it is a major cause of disease and death in the United States.
What are the illnesses associated with pneumococcal disease?
The diseases that are commonly caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae and that are associated with serious disease and death include invasive disease and pneumonia. Invasive disease is primarily meningitis and blood stream infections, or bacteremia. There are about 50,000 cases of bacteremia due to Streptococcus pneumonia in the United States every year and from 3,000 to 6,000 cases of meningitis. The death rate associated with those conditions, even in the era of antibiotics and all of the great care we have, is still high. For bloodstream infections the death rate is somewhere between 15 and 20 percent and for meningitis, it is between 15 and about 37 percent. So these disease are not frequent, perhaps, but they are associated with a lot of morbidity and even mortality.
Pneumonia is the other major condition caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae. We estimate that there are about 900,000 cases of community-acquired pneumonia due to Streptococcus pneumoniae every year. The pneumonia death rate is somewhere between 5 and 7 percent. For all of the diseases associated with Streptococcus pneumonia, the death rate is higher among the elderly.
What are some complications associated with pneumococcal disease?
The thing to remember about serious pneumococcal infection is that people who have the disease and live often have prolonged hospitalizations and may have long-term problems related to these infections. For instance, with pneumococcal meningitis people can have permanent hearing loss, seizures, blindness, or even paralysis as a result. People with pneumococcal pneumonia may actually have cardiac problems, including heart attacks, around the time of and related to the fact that they have pneumococcal pneumonia.
Who is most at risk of developing pneumococcal infections?
About 85 percent of invasive pneumococcal disease—that is, meningitis and bloodstream infections—occurs in people who are 18 years of age and older. The risk of having severe sequelae (pathological conditions resulting from a disease) is higher among people who are older or who have underlying medical conditions, such as diabetes. People with diabetes are more at risk of having severe sequelae, up to and including death, if they get the infection.
Can pneumococcal disease be prevented?
The best prevention for pneumococcal disease is the pneumococcal vaccination. This is called the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine, or PPSV23. It is effective against nearly three-quarters of the strains that are likely to cause diseases among adults.
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