Vaccine boosters mulled after two children die of bacterial infection

Authoritiesare considering booster shots for 300,000 children after recent fatalities caused by pneumococcal bacterial infections

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 6:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2013, 6:12am

A booster vaccination programme is being considered after two children died of pneumococcal bacterial infection, the health minister said yesterday.

One of the victims had received the standard pneumococcal conjugate vaccine given to Hong Kong children, but it did not cover the strain of bacteria the children were infected with - a situation one expert described as worrying.

The deaths of the pair showed that the present vaccination programme might not offer sufficient protection, as bacteria mutated over time, Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said.

Pneumococcal bacteria can lead to potentially deadly invasive pneumococcal infections - including pneumonia, meningitis and septicaemia.

In both recent cases - involving a five-year-old girl who had not been vaccinated and died last Monday, and a three-year-old who had been vaccinated and died last Sunday - the victims tested positive for Streptococcus pneumonia serotype 3 in examinations by the Centre for Health Protection.

The bacteria is one of 90 serotypes of pneumococci, most of which are not covered by the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine given to Hong Kong children. The strain has been covered by the vaccine since 2011, but children vaccinated before then are not protected.

Ko said the expert panel responsible for the vaccination programme had brought forward its next meeting to early next month to consider rolling out the booster vaccines.

Professor Gary Wong Wing-kin, a paediatrics expert at Chinese University, said those aged six and below were most at risk from this condition.

"Those children who received injections under the old programme are most at risk, because they are only protected against other serotypes of Streptococcus pneumonia," Wong said. "They are most at risk and should receive an additional injection."

Wong estimated that 300,000 local children needed the booster. He said health authorities in the US had urged parents to give their children an additional vaccination covering serotype 3.

Microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung, of the University of Hong Kong, agreed children should receive the vaccine and described the situation as worrying.

But Ko said experts would have to consider several factors before making a decision.

"The experts therein will analyse the available clinical epidemiological data, examine the supply of new vaccines and then make a recommendation."

The Centre for Health Protection says serotype 3 is not uncommon. It is typically found in the nose and throat of healthy people, particularly children. It is spread by coughing, sneezing and close contact.

Pneumococcal bacteria are usually harmless. But they can become pathogenic and lead to infections.