What's happening to the pneumococcal vaccine?

18th April 2019

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has confirmed that it is to make changes to the pneumococcal vaccination that is given to infants. This vaccination is one of several offered by the NHS that helps to prevent meningitis, as well as other more common pneumococcal infections

Pneumococcal vaccine update blog

The change will reduce the number of injections (or ‘doses’) given to babies from the current three to two.

The reason is that scientists believe that two doses can provide the same level of protection as three doses. But a possible consequence of the change could be a small increase in the number of cases of invasive pneumococcal disease. At Meningitis Now, we have raised concerns with DHSC about this, and you can read our response to the pneumococcal schedule change here.

DHSC has said that the changes will take place when as soon as is practical. We believe that this means later this year. We have offered to work with DHSC, the NHS and Public Health England to help communicate these changes to families given that such a change may cause worry and concern.

As part of this, we have below tried to explain the pneumococcal vaccine and why DHSC has taken this decision.

What is the pneumococcal vaccine?

The pneumococcal vaccine (known as ‘PCV13’) offers protection against 13 ‘strains’ (or types) of pneumococcal bacteria. It is offered to young children as part of the routine NHS immunisation programme. Pneumococcal bacteria can cause serious and life-threatening infections such as septicaemia or pneumonia, with meningitis occurring in around 5% of cases. Since the introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine, it is thought that around 40,000 cases of serious pneumococcal infections (known as invasive pneumococcal disease) have been prevented in the UK.

What is happening?

Babies are currently offered a total of three pneumococcal vaccine doses which are given at 2, 4 and 12 months (known as a 2+1 schedule). The new schedule will offer a total of two doses which will be given at 3 and 12 months (1+1 schedule). We do not know exactly when this change will take place.

Who made this decision?

This decision was made on the recommendation of the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), an independent group of experts who advise the government on the provision of vaccination and immunisation services in the UK.

Why has this decision been made?

Vaccination programmes are a complex issue. Bacteria strains and case numbers continually change. The JCVI regularly review the vaccines given in the UK vaccine programme to ensure they give the best possible protection through the smallest number of vaccines given at the most effective times.

The decision to reduce the number of pneumococcal doses is based on the most recent evidence and research. This includes:

  • The success of the pneumococcal vaccination programme in reducing case numbers over several years. 
  • Research published in The Lancet, suggests that two doses of the vaccine is likely to be as effective as three.  
  • That the UK has an excellent national surveillance programme which will continue to monitor trends in pneumococcal disease after changes to the vaccine programme have been made.  

Will the change lead to an increase in case numbers?

The JCVI noted that there may be a small increase in cases of invasive pneumococcal disease and that ‘very few would occur in young children’. According to DHSC, this possibility sits within the an overall context of a downward trend in vaccine-type disease, and that they expect this trend to continue under the 1+1 programme. 

DHSC has confirmed that further evidence about these trends will be published shortly.  We will review and share this when it happens. 

The future of pneumococcal vaccine

There are over 90 different strains of pneumococcal bacteria that can potentially cause disease. Most cases of pneumococcal infection are now caused by strains which cannot be prevented by current vaccines. 

There is a great need for a new vaccine to help protect against all pneumococcal strains. Many researchers in the UK and abroad are working to develop a better vaccine, and Meningitis Now is helping to fund this research. This is likely to take some years. You can find out more on our Research pages.

Irrespective of the changes being made to the pneumococcal vaccine programme, we urge everyone to know the signs and symptoms of the disease, and to seek urgent medical help if you think you or someone you know may have meningitis.