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There are more than 90 different strains of S. pneumoniae, and some are much more likely to cause serious infection (virulent) than others.
Some strains can be easily killed by the immune system, while others are resistant and likely to cause a more serious infection.
It's thought that between eight and 10 strains are responsible for two-thirds of serious infections in adults, and most cases in children.
It's important to emphasise that pneumococcal infections are far less contagious than a cold or flu. This is because most people's immune systems are able to kill the bacteria before they have the opportunity to cause an infection.
Outbreaks of pneumococcal infections can sometimes occur in environments where there are many people who have poorly functioning immune systems, such as in children's nurseries, care homes for the elderly and homeless shelters.
People with a weakened immune system, either due to their age or general health, are particularly at risk of developing a pneumococcal infection.
The bacteria can move from their throat to other parts of their body, such as the lungs, the blood or the brain. If this occurs, a more serious infection can develop.
The pneumococcal vaccine may be considered for people at higher risk, including:
You're considered to be at a higher risk of pneumococcal infection if you: