As many parents can tell you, a small child who is prone to ear infections can make the whole family miserable. Now, a new vaccine has been shown to help prevent, rather than treat, frequent ear infections.

"This is exciting news for parents whose children suffer from frequent and painful ear infections," says study leader Katherine A. Poehling, M.D., a pediatrician at Brenner Children's Hospital, part of Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

Poehling and a team of researchers followed about 27,000 children in New York and 150,000 children in Tennessee from birth to two years old who were born after the PCV7 vaccine was approved. This vaccine was approved to help protect children from potentially deadly strains of meningitis caused by the pneumococcus bacteria. This bacteria is also a prime cause of ear infections.

Poehling found that as more and more children were given the vaccine, the number of vaccinated children who developed frequent ear infections or received ear tubes declined by 16 percent in Tennessee and 25 percent in New York.

"This vaccine has benefited both children and adults since being introduced into the vaccination schedule," Poehling said. "We have seen declines in the incidence of serious infections such as pneumococcal meningitis in both children and adults, as well as the number of children developing frequent ear infections."

PCV7 was licensed by the FDA in 2000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended the vaccine become part of the routine vaccination schedule that same year.

Ear infections are one of the most common infections in children. Before the vaccine was introduced into the vaccination schedule, about one-third of ear infections were caused by the pneumococcus bacteria. "While most children have at least one ear infection by their second birthday, 25 to 30 percent of children will develop frequent ear infections, or about three or four each year," Poehling said.

Many of these children — about one of every 15 to 25 children — will end up with ear tubes by the age of two, she said.

"Although these results are very exciting, we need to carefully monitor the trends in ear infections because pnuemococcal strains not included in the vaccine may increase and potentially diminish these gains," she said.

This study appears in the April 2007 issue of Pediatrics.