New mums will get vaccine to protect against ear infection 

New mum Elizabeth Heenan, who was vaccinated before the birth of baby Joan, now nine weeks old, with PneuMum project leader Dr Ross Andrews

The health crisis among Aboriginal children with hearing problems is being tackled through a new vaccination program run by the Menzies School of Health Research.

Pregnant women from Darwin and remote communities across the Top End have volunteered to take part in a three-year trial designed to eradicate the pneumococcal germs that cause ear disease.

According to Menzies’ researcher Dr Ross Andrews, two out of every three Aboriginal children have damage to their ear drums by the time they get to school – mostly through the pneumococcal infection.

This has significant implications for learning, because these children simply cannot hear or understand their classroom lessons when their ears are damaged through the infection.

Under a project called PneuMum, Dr Andrews and his research team are now trialing a new vaccine that can protect new-born babies from the pneumococcal germs that cause ear disease.

While the pneumococcal germ is present in the atmosphere everywhere, it is more prevalent in the crowded housing conditions and poor hygiene in remote Indigenous communities.

It lodges in the nose and throat and can be passed on through touching, sneezing and kissing, hence the susceptibility of babies to becoming infected.

The vaccination trial will examine the best method of offering protection to pregnant women so the germ is not passed on to their infant.

One group of women will be vaccinated during pregnancy, another group at the birth of the baby and the final group seven months after the child is born.

More than 200 women are expected to take part in the three-year trial, which should provide evidence as to which is the best time to vaccinate against the pneumococcal germ.

“Giving vaccines in pregnancy is not new,” says Dr Andrews. “What is new about this study is that we are looking to see if protection passed on from the mother during pregnancy or from breast milk can protect the babies from ear disease.

“We know babies under two months are at great risk of getting pneumococcal infection.”

The vaccines will be available free to new mothers under a scheme funded by the Northern Territory Government and the Federal Government.

The pneumococcal vaccine is already available free to Aboriginal people aged between 15 and 50, but according to Dr Andrews the take-up rate is low in many communities.

In older people the infection can lead to meningitis, pneumonia and septicaemia, resulting in death in between 10 per cent and 15 per cent of cases.