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The pneumococcal vaccine

Dr Hamish Black

Here's what you need to know about the pneumococcal vaccine

doctor and child high fiving for vaccination
doctor and child high fiving for vaccination

The pneumococcal vaccine, and subsequent booster offer protection against up to 23 types of pneumococcal strains.

As well as being hard to pronounce, pneumococcal disease is a bacterial infection that can cause a range of mild to serious illnesses. The good news is, immunisation can significantly reduce the risk of infection.

What is pneumococcal? 

Pneumococcal disease is caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can be spread from person to person through droplets of saliva or mucous. While many people carry the bacteria without getting sick, young children, older people and those with compromised immune systems are at risk of getting seriously ill with pneumococcal disease. 

Strep pneumoniae is a common cause of ear infections, pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis,” says nib Group Medical Advisor Dr Hamish Black.  

Who needs the vaccine? 

The pneumococcal vaccine is recommended for babies, anyone with a serious medical condition, adults aged 70 and up and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 50. 

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and adults are particularly at risk,” confirms Hamish. “Children may need extra doses depending on where they live.” 

Some people shouldn’t have the pneumococcal vaccine, including

  • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding (it’s best to get immunised before pregnancy) 

  • People who have had anaphylaxis following a previous pneumococcal dose (rare). 

How does the vaccine work? 

Both types of pneumococcal vaccine contain an inactivated (killed) form of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacterium. When the vaccine is injected, the body starts producing antibodies against the bacterium, offering protection against future infection. 

Because the vaccines are inactivated, they can’t cause pneumococcal disease. Side effects are uncommon and generally mild, including pain, redness and swelling at the site of injection and a low-grade fever. If you have any concerns about the vaccine’s side effects, talk to your doctor.

Types of pneumococcal vaccine 

There are two types of pneumococcal vaccines registered in Australia. The type and number of doses vary depending on your age, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander status, state or territory, and health conditions. You can find out more in the Australian Immunisation Handbook or by asking your GP. 

When to get the pneumococcal vaccine 

“Vaccination is funded under the National Immunisation Program with different guidelines from state to state,” says Hamish. “In New South Wales and Victoria, the schedule is for children at age six weeks, four months and 12 months, and adults aged over 70, or over 50 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.” 

Talk to your GP to find out the recommended timing of vaccinations in your state or territory. 

Do you need a booster? 

While most babies only need three doses of the vaccine, the following groups may need additional doses: 

  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander babies receive a total of four doses given at around two months, four months, six months and 12 months, if they live in high-risk areas including Queensland, Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia 

  • Babies who were born prematurely (before 28 weeks) or are medically at risk receive four doses at around two months, four months, six months and 12 months, as well as a booster vaccine at four years followed by another booster at least five years later 

To find out more about whether you or your child should receive the pneumococcal vaccine, speak with your GP. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.