Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the MRC Laboratories in The Gambia found that vaccinating infants in the developing world against pneumococcus could drastically reduce rates of serious illness and death. Pneumococcus bacteria are responsible for around one million deaths every year among children in developing countries. They invade the lungs and cause the most common type of bacterial pneumonia and can also infect the bloodstream or move into the fluids surrounding the brain and spinal cord, resulting in meningitis.
In the 1980s, MRC scientists worked to find an effective vaccine against pneumococcus in The Gambia. Between 2000 and 2003 they vaccinated nearly 9,000 Gambian children and compared them with children who received a dummy vaccine. Tracking the children for four years revealed that the vaccine was 77 per cent effective at preventing infection and resulted in a 16 per cent reduction in the number of deaths and a 37 per cent reduction in cases of pneumonia. The study was supported by international health research funders including the US National Institutes of Health, and the pharmaceutical industry.