Pneumonia is a leading cause of death worldwide. The bacterial infection kills one person every 10 seconds, according to experts who say they have discovered how the pathogen behaves so they can develop better treatments.
The bacterium that causes pneumonia - Streptococcus pneumoniae - can behave in six different unique ways. One version causes the severe lung disease, which can kill in a matter of days.
The pneumonia bacterium can also cause sinusitis, or inflammation of the sinus passages, lethal blood infections, meningitis and infections of the middle ear. But sometimes the bacterium is spread harmlessly among people without them getting sick.
Marco Oggioni is a bacterial geneticist at the University of Leicester in Britain. Writing in the journal Nature Communications, he and an international team of researchers describe what they call 'a genetic switch' that allows the bacterium to cause any of those six different infections.
He says young children are particularly vulnerable to a lethal infection.
“It is a very acute disease and a very fast disease, and often children arrive late to hospitals," said Oggioni.
Modern antibiotics can successfully treat a pneumococcal infection, but time is of the essence according to Oggioni. That is why it is important to know the exact bacterial form that is causing illness.
"By understanding how this bacterium behaves, especially in the very severe cases, we could maybe give new guidelines for treatment," he said.
Oggioni says being able to identify the correct “face” of this unpredictable microbe would allow doctors to treat patients with the most effective antibiotic, and could help researchers develop targeted vaccines against Streptococcus pneumoniae.