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Genetics study reveals how bacteria behind serious childhood diseases evolve to evade vaccines

Pneumococcus (Streptococcus pneumoniae) causes potentially life-threatening diseases including pneumonia and meningitis. Pneumococcal infections are thought to kill approximately a million young children worldwide each year, although the success of vaccination programmes has led to a dramatic fall in the number of cases in countries such as the UK and the USA.

These vaccines recognise the bacteria by its polysaccharide, the material found on the outside of the bacterial cell. There are more than 90 different kinds - or 'serotypes' - of the bacteria, each with a different polysaccharide coating.

In 2000, the USA introduced a pneumococcal vaccine that targeted seven of the 90 serotypes. This '7-valent' vaccine was extremely effective and had a dramatic effect on reducing disease among the age groups targeted.

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