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Charity urges caution despite a reduction in respiratory infections

02 Jun 2021
Charity urges caution despite a reduction in respiratory infections
  • COVID measures have also cut cases of three common, deadly respiratory bacteria
  • The fall in cases of deadly diseases, such as meningitis, provides an opportunity to keep them low with effective immunisation
  • However, vaccination rates have fallen leading to concern that the diseases will quickly bounce back

COVID containment measures around the world have also helped to reduce cases of other infectious diseases, according to new research in The Lancet Digital Health.

The introduction of COVID-19 containment policies and public information campaigns has also helped to reduce transmission of three common respiratory bacteria (Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Neisseria meningitidis) leading to a significant reduction in life-threatening diseases, such as meningitis, in many countries worldwide.

Linda Glennie, Director of Research at Meningitis Research Foundation said: “It is great news to see that cases of meningitis as well as sepsis and pneumonia due to respiratory infections have been reduced by social distancing and other interventions. However, we have also seen a decline in immunisations leaving some people without protection.  Without effective immunisation coverage, diseases can bounce back quickly. While cases are low, we have the opportunity to keep them low by ensuring we maintain and build our vaccination programmes. New variants of meningitis-causing bacteria have appeared in the UK in recent years which were more deadly than previous types. It’s vital that we can control the spread of other vaccine-preventable diseases as we reduce COVID measures.”

Social distancing measures have been in place throughout much of the world following the COVID-19 outbreak.

Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Neisseria meningitidis, which are typically transmitted via respiratory droplets, are leading causes of invasive diseases, including meningitis, sepsis and pneumonia.

Surveillance data for these bacteria from laboratories in 26 countries and territories across six continents were recorded from Jan 1st 2018, to May 31st 2020, as part of the Invasive Respiratory Infection Surveillance (IRIS) Initiative. Numbers of weekly cases in 2020 were compared with corresponding data for 2018 and 2019. 
All countries and territories had experienced a significant and sustained reduction in invasive diseases due to all three respiratory bacteria in early 2020 (Jan 1 to May 31, 2020), coinciding with the introduction of COVID-19 containment measures in each country.

The changes were starkest for Streptococcus pneumoniae, which can cause both meningitis and pneumonia. The incidence of reported Streptococcus pneumoniae infections decreased by 68% at 4 weeks (incidence rate ratio 0·32 [95% CI 0·27–0·37]) and 82% at 8 weeks (0·18 [0·14–0·23]) following the week in which significant changes in population movements were recorded.

It is vital that people continue to get the vaccines that are available to them.

Importantly, in countries with available data, there was no change in the incidence of Streptococcus agalactiae, more often known as Group B Streptococcus, the leading cause of meningitis in newborn babies in many countries. This infection is not spread via the respiratory route, suggesting that neither pandemic-associated breakdowns in surveillance nor changes in healthcare attendance among individuals can explain the decreased incidence of Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Neisseria meningitidis.

Meningitis Research Foundation is part of a taskforce led by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to deliver the new Global Roadmap to Defeat Meningitis. Strong vaccine programmes are vital to this mission. A reduction in cases of meningitis due to restrictions designed to eliminate COVID transmission provides a unique opportunity to keep deaths from meningitis as low as possible for good. This will only happen with effective vaccine programmes and by ensuring anyone who missed out on routine vaccines during the pandemic catches up as quickly as possible. It’s also vital effective prevention strategies for Group B Streptococcus, a leading cause of meningitis, are developed. Cases of Group B Streptococcus have not decreased during the COVID pandemic.
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