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Vaccine Shows Promise Against a Big Killer of Babies in the Developing World

I’m Gwen Outen with the VOA Special English Health Report.

Children under the age of two and old people are at the greatest risk from infections caused by pneumococcal bacteria. The World Health Organization estimates that each year more than one and one-half million lives are lost as a result.

Most of the young victims are in developing countries. In fact, researchers say pneumococcal infections kill more children even than malaria.

Now a study in Gambia, West Africa, has added to hopes about a prevention that could become widely used. If that happens, researchers say the vaccine could save hundreds of thousands of children each year.

The most serious infections caused by pneumococcal bacteria are meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia. Pneumonia is a lung disease. Sepsis poisons the blood. Meningitis infects the brain and spinal cord. Experts say up to seventy percent of children in developing countries who get pneumococcal meningitis die or become disabled.

Experts say pneumococcal infections are getting more and more difficult to treat. The bacteria are becoming resistant to commonly used antibiotics. That is because these medicines have been used too commonly.

There are vaccines that can be given to babies to prevent pneumococcal disease. In the United States, such a vaccine has been used since two thousand.

The one tested in Gambia had already been shown to work in cities in South Africa. Researchers wanted to know if this vaccine could also be effective in less developed communities, away from cities. Felicity Cutts of the Medical Research Council in Britain says the results demonstrate that it could. Professor Cutts led the four-year study.

The researchers chose Gambia because of its high death rates among babies and limited health care. They vaccinated more than seventeen thousand babies.

The study found sixteen percent fewer deaths among those who received the vaccine than among those who did not. Also, reduced numbers of children became sick enough to need hospital care.

In all, there were seventy-seven percent fewer infections caused by the groups of organisms targeted by the vaccine. As a result, the study says there were thirty-seven percent fewer cases of pneumonia.

The governments of Gambia, Britain and the United States supported the study. Wyeth Pharmaceuticals provided the test vaccine. The Lancet published the findings.

This VOA Special English Health Report was written by Cynthia Kirk. I'm Gwen Outen.