April 28, 2014 |

Pneumonia: smart vaccines to fight the number one child killer

More than 90 strains of a bacterium can cause pneumonia, which makes developing an effective vaccine challenging.
Two young children, one with her arm around the other.
Pneumonia kills more young children than any other disease—about 1 million every year. Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.

Each year, more than 2 million children die from just four illnesses: malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis. Today, we look at the need for a new kind of vaccine against pneumonia. 

Graphic with text reading, "International Immunization Week 2014. Four vaccines, millions saved: malaria, pneumonia, rotavirus, Japanese encephalitis."
Illustration: PATH/Shawn Kavon.

The challenge

Pneumonia kills more children worldwide than any other disease. Last year, it took the lives of more than a million children—3,000 every day—primarily in the world’s poorest countries.

Poor access to sanitation and safe drinking water, a lack of health care, and inadequate diagnostic tools all contribute to pneumonia’s toll. Often, parents don’t recognize children’s symptoms in time, and when they do, lifesaving care may be miles—or even days—from their homes.

Meeting these challenges requires a combination of approaches. For more than ten years, vaccines have been a particularly powerful ally. Last year, immunization against the leading cause of pneumonia, the pneumococcus bacterium, saved thousands of lives in more than 100 countries. Yet existing vaccines are complicated to manufacture, too expensive for many low-resource countries, and don’t offer complete protection against disease. To beat pneumonia, we need to keep improving our tools.

The vaccines

One reason the pneumococcus bacterium is such a wily foe is that it’s not actually an it—it’s a them. Pneumonia is caused by a nasty group of more than 90 varieties of the bacterium, which vary from region to region. To provide the best protection possible, today’s vaccines are manufactured through a complex process that essentially combines vaccines against as many as 13 types of pneumococcal bacteria into a single injection. These vaccines are versatile and safe—but they can’t protect against every deadly variety.

Poster about pneumonia on the wall above a counter in a health clinic.
Pneumonia can be caused by more than 90 strains of a bacterium, which makes developing an effective vaccine challenging. Photo: PATH/Laura Cooley.

The future

We’re pushing forward a new group of pneumococcal vaccines that could be effective and affordable enough to protect millions of children in the world’s poorest countries. One of these candidates, which we are developing in partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital, is an inactivated whole-cell vaccine designed to generate immunity across all pneumococcal strains.The vaccine is also relatively easy to manufacture, which could make it less expensive.

Early-stage clinical evaluation in adults in the United States has already shown that the vaccine is safe and that it may spark the protective immune responses scientists are looking for. We’re working on testing the vaccine further in adults and then in children in the low-resource countries where it is most needed. If the vaccine is eventually licensed, it could provide broad, affordable protection for children worldwide.


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