Pneumonia causes about three million deaths a year in young children, nearly all of which are in developing countries. Streptococcus pneumoniae (the pneumococcus) is the most important bacterial cause of pneumonia in young children and so is likely to be responsible for a high proportion of these deaths. The pneumococcus is also responsible for a substantial proportion of the 100 000–500 000 deaths that occur from meningitis in children each year. The incidence of invasive pneumococcal disease in children in the developing world is several times higher than in industrialized countries. This discrepancy may, in part, be due to socio–economic differences but genetic factors may also play a role. Children with sickle cell disease have a substantially increased risk of invasive pneumococcal infection and a search is being made for other possible genetic risk factors. Infection with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) also predisposes to invasive pneumococcal disease and so the incidence of this disease in young children is expected to rise as increasing numbers of African and Asian children are born with a perinatally acquired HIV infection. Until recently, pneumococcal infections could be treated effectively with penicillin, a cheap and safe antibiotic. However, pneumococci that are resistant to penicillin are becoming prevalent in many countries, necessitating a change to more costly antibiotics which may be beyond the reach of the health services of poor, developing counties. The spread of antibiotic resistance has provided an added stimulus to the development of vaccines that might be able to prevent pneumococcal disease in infants. Recently developed polysaccharide–protein conjugate vaccines show promise and are now undergoing field trials. How deployment of these vaccines will influence the balance between invasive pneumococcal infections and asymptomatic nasopharyngeal carriage of pneumococci is uncertain.