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Pneumococcal meningitis: saving children’s lives and reducing complications from this serious infection

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Babies and young children under two years of age are particularly at risk of pneumococcal meningitis. This life-threatening infection strikes unexpectedly and can have devastating consequences. Thankfully, vaccines have been introduced that can protect against several strains of pneumococcus bacteria, which has led to a rapid decrease in the most serious infections. Dr Godwin Oligbu at Public Health England is leading a nationwide study to improve our understanding of new and emerging strains that are now the main cause of new cases of meningitis. His ultimate goal is to help doctors more accurately predict the course of a child’s disease and tailor their treatment – saving lives and reducing complications.

How are children’s lives affected now?

Pneumococcal meningitis – inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord – is a serious illness caused by certain strains of pneumococcus bacteria. Most often affecting babies and toddlers, up to one in seven will lose their lives and a quarter will be left with severe and often permanent after-effects – including sight or hearing loss, seizures and learning disabilities.1

“With rapid diagnosis and treatment, many children will make a good recovery – but sadly, the lives of others will be lost or changed forever,” says Dr Oligbu.

National immunisation programmes in the UK and Ireland have led to a rapid decrease in severe pneumococcal infections, including those which cause meningitis.

“As a result, nearly all serious infections in children are now caused by strains of bacteria that are not covered by existing vaccines (non-vaccine strains) – but we don’t know much about the risk, severity and outcomes of meningitis caused by these new and emerging strains of bacteria,” says Dr Oligbu.

How could this research help?

“We are aiming to gain a better understanding of these non-vaccine strains of bacteria and how they affect babies and children– to identify opportunities for improving the diagnosis and treatment of children with meningitis,” says Dr Oligbu.

Over the course of the study, the researchers will collect data from all children diagnosed with pneumococcal meningitis across the UK and Ireland and from laboratory analyses of biological samples to identify the bacteria involved.

“By analysing these data, we will find out more about the symptoms and treatment that helps children affected by pneumococcal meningitis – as well as identifying differences in severity and outcomes of infections caused by different bacterial strains,” says Dr Oligbu.

The team hopes to develop new guidelines for the management and follow-up of children with pneumococcal meningitis that reflect the changing nature of the disease.

“Our results will enable us to make recommendations for future studies and interventions that can save lives and reduce complications from pneumococcal meningitis in children,” says Dr Oligbu.

References

  1. Oxford Vaccine Group, Vaccine Knowledge Project, pneumococcal disease: http://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/pneumococcal-disease
Project Leader Dr Godwin I Oligbu, MBBS MRCPCH MSc
Project Team Dr Shamez N Ladhani, MBBS MRCPCH MSc PhD
Project Location Immunisation, Hepatitis and Blood Safety Department, Public Health England
Project Location Other  
Project duration 25 months
Date awarded 26 November 2018
Provisional start date 1 July 2019
Project end date 1 April 2021
Grant amount £19,850
Grant code GN2752

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