Background: Children frequently carry Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcus) in their nasopharynx, even when healthy. Lower carriage rates have been reported in adults and only sparse data are available for the elderly. We sampled healthy elderly subjects for nasopharyngeal carriage to assess the prevalence of pneumococcal carriage using various assays.
Methods: A deep nasopharyngeal swab sample was taken from 590 healthy elderly subjects aged ≥ 65 y. The samples were stored in STGG (skim milk-tryptone-glucose-glycerol) medium and cultured directly and after incubation in enrichment broth using routine identification methods. Real-time polymerase chain reaction (PCR) assays specific for pneumolysin and pneumococcal surface antigen A genes was performed on the same samples. Urine was also collected and assayed using the commercial Binax Streptococcus pneumoniae NOW urine antigen test.
Results: The prevalence of pneumococcal carriage in healthy elderly persons was 1.5% for encapsulated pneumococci and 5.3% for all presumptive pneumococci. The use of the enrichment broth did not increase the yield of positives. PCR assays gave higher numbers of positives, but pneumolysin PCR in particular gave probable false-positive results. Only 1 urine antigen test was positive, and this was in a person not carrying pneumococcus.
Conclusions: Nasopharyngeal carriage of pneumococci in the elderly was rare. Identification of presumptive pneumococci in culture requires further confirmation, e.g. by serotyping. The urine antigen test was not affected by concurrent carriage. Low carriage prevalence suggests that encapsulated pneumococci detected in a respiratory tract sample during sickness may be the true cause of disease, since contamination from asymptomatic nasopharyngeal carriage seems unlikely.