Aidan is a jovial child, the youngest of five siblings and “quite a handful”, says his mother, Safinaz.
However, things weren’t always peachy. When Aidan was just seven months old, he was diagnosed with severe pneumonia (inflammation of the lungs) caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae.
It almost claimed his life.
It started out with what Safinaz thought was a typical cold, with all the usual signs and symptoms (e.g. fever, flu and coughing).
A trip to the nearby clinic resulted in doctors prescribing Aidan antibiotics.
Symptoms would come and go, but three weeks after Aidan’s first visit to the doctor, he was still sick.
Sensing something amiss, Safinaz sought advice from a paediatrician.
X-ray results from the lab showed that Aidan’s left lung was filled with mucus and pus, which obstructed his breathing.
Aidan was later diagnosed with severe pneumonia and immediately put into the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) ward.
“I felt so helpless and depressed, especially seeing Aidan’s frail body in the incubator with all the tubes protruding from his body,” says Safinaz. “Just a seven-month-old baby, having to experience such incredible suffering and pain…
“I don’t think I was anywhere close to being able to fathom how painful it was for Aidan. I wanted to hold him in my arms and comfort him like a mother should.
“But I couldn’t, he was so close, yet I felt him drift so far,” she remembers.
Luckily, doctors were able to save Aidan and he gradually recovered.
After Aidan’s discharge from hospital, Safinaz noticed a change in him.
He appeared detached from his siblings, and even herself. He was quiescent and not the same curious, peppy child he once was.
“It tested our patience to the very edge,” said Safinaz.
It took many months of adjusting before Aidan fully assimilated to his home environment and former self.
“There wasn’t a world where we could imagine living without our dearest Aidan. We weren’t ready to give up on him, never,” she said as she passed a little kiss to Aidan’s forehead.
Losing your own child is every parent’s worst nightmare.
A dark contrast to Aidan’s story is the fate that befell Mrisha and her family.
Alissa had barely turned five months old when she succumbed to bacterial meningitis, a complication arising from pneumococcal disease.
“I carried Alissa in my womb for nine months, experienced the hours of labour pain, brought my little girl to this world… we had Alissa with us for a mere five months before losing her in a span of four days,” recalls Mrisha, with tears glistening in her eyes.
“I always smile when I think about her – soft skin, the scent of her hair, how she would light up just by hearing the sound of my voice, her laugh… especially her laugh,” she shares.
Bacterial meningitis is another disease caused by S. pneumoniae infection, among others. But instead of the lungs, the bacteria infect the tissues lining the brain.
The disease manifested and became fatal in less than four days from the onset of symptoms in Alissa.
“It all happened so fast … one day she was giggling and the next she was just gone.
“The days that followed (Alissa’s passing) were the loneliest I had ever felt,” recalls Mrisha, barely stopping a sob.
“When the doctor approached us with the news, I was mortified, my heart grew so heavy with anguish and despair that I fell to the ground,” she said.
The only symptoms that were present in Alissa’s case was a high fever. However, pneumococcal infections can be asymptomatic or appear as flu-like symptoms, such as in Aidan’s case.
Paediatrician and neonatologist Datuk Dr Musa Mohamad Nordin explains that while a high fever is one of the symptoms of bacterial meningitis, it can be challenging to distinguish between bacterial and viral causes of the disease, thus, making appropriate treatment difficult.
Furthermore, even when the disease is diagnosed early and adequate treatment is started, 5%-10% of patients die, typically within 24 to 48 hours after the onset of symptoms.
And 10%-20% of those who do survive may suffer from permanent brain damage, hearing loss or a learning disability.
Pneumonia killed more than 900,000 children under the age of five in 2015, accounting for 16% of all deaths of children under five years old globally, while bacterial meningitis is a cause of 2% of all child deaths under five.
Children can be protected from pneumococcal infections. It can be prevented with simple interventions such as vaccination.
The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) protects children against pneumococcal diseases, which is one of the leading causes of pneumonia and bacterial meningitis.
The story of Aidan, Alissa and the traumatic events their families had to go through serve as a reminder to all that pneumococcal disease is a serious threat, not to be taken lightly or ignored.