For parents of school-age children, vaccinations are usually pretty routine. You take your children for their annual check-up, and your health care provider tells you what vaccines are due. This year, that list will be a little longer for students entering seventh and 12th grades. The legislature has added the meningitis vaccine to those required for school enrollment.
Meningitis is a serious disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord. About 15 percent of those who get bacterial meningitis die, many of them within a day or two of infection. The disease is hard to diagnose because early symptoms resemble the flu. But the longer it takes for treatment to begin, the more likely the survivor will suffer lifelong consequences like loss of limbs or hearing, or mental impairment.
Adolescents are one group at higher risk of contracting bacterial meningitis, which is spread by contact with nasal secretions or saliva from an infected person. Think about typical teenage behaviors: sharing a soda at the mall or a water bottle on the sports field, sharing a kiss. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommends the meningitis vaccine for all children 11 to 16, with a booster shot for incoming college freshmen if their last vaccine was at least five years ago.
The meningitis vaccine is critical for college students because those who live in dormitories get meningitis three times more often than others their age. And there’s not one, but two meningitis vaccines your college student should have.
There are five strains of meningitis: A, C, W, Y, and B. Until recently, the vaccines available in the U.S. covered the first four strains, but no vaccine was approved for meningitis B. However, about 30 percent of meningitis cases in the U.S. are meningitis B and it’s the strain that most commonly causes outbreaks on college campuses.
Two current cases of meningitis in West Virginia — one at Marshall University — are the most recent examples to hit adolescents and college students across the country. We’ve seen other recent cases at Rutgers University, Yale University, Santa Clara, the University of Kentucky, and several others. But there is something parents can do to protect their kids.
Within the past two years, new vaccines for meningitis B were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). To be protected against a possible outbreak of meningitis on campus, college students should have both vaccines, the newer one for meningitis B and the more commonly available vaccine for the four other strains. Because it’s newer, your healthcare provider may not be familiar with the meningitis B vaccine, but you should insist on it for your student’s on-campus safety.
Nationally, there are about 100 cases of meningitis on college campuses annually. Ohio University and Ohio State University have had meningitis cases among students within recent years, some of them fatal, and now require all students living in dormitories to be vaccinated for meningitis. Other Ohio colleges require students to disclose whether they’ve been vaccinated for meningitis.
Whether they are learning to read or learning mechanical engineering, having your children vaccinated does more than protect them. Some students and teachers go home to infants too young to be vaccinated. Some students have medical conditions that contraindicate vaccination – whether for meningitis or measles or other preventable illnesses. When they’re exposed to people who have those illnesses, they’re at particular risk. The more students in a school or on a college campus who have immunity through vaccination, the safer it is for everyone.
Dennis Cunningham, M.D., is a pediatric expert in infectious diseases at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. He can be reached by email at Dennis.Cunningham@nationwIidechildrens.org or call 614-722-4494.