Meningococcal Vaccine- what exactly is it?

Every year we see it on the news, schools closed for cleaning due to meningitis outbreak, college student dies due to bacterial meningitis, or infant hospitalized after confirmed case of meningitis. Such devastating news, yet many don’t even know what it is, or how it is prevented.

The website chop.edu says that, “Meningococcus can be devastating — claiming a child’s life in just hours. Although infants less than 1 year of age are at the highest risk of getting this disease, adolescents and teens are most likely to die from it.” Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial illness. It is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. People sometimes refer to it as spinal meningitis.

According to the CDC about 1,000 – 2,600 people get meningococcal disease each year in the U.S. Even when they are treated with antibiotics, 10-15% of these people die. Which means about 1 out of every ten people who get the disease dies from it, and many others are affected for life. Of those who survive, another 11-19% lose their arms or legs, become deaf, have problems with their nervous systems, become mentally retarded, or suffer seizures or strokes. This is why preventing the disease is so very important.

The highest incidence of meningococcal disease occurs in infants less than 1 year of age. In children between 2 and 10 years of age, the incidence of meningococcal infections is very low, but starting in adolescence the incidence of disease rises. Although adolescents are less likely to be infected than infants, they are more likely to die when infected. Also, college freshmen who live in dormitories, and teenagers 15-19 have an increased risk of getting meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal bacteria are particularly dangerous because they rapidly make large

quantities of a poison called endotoxin. Endotoxin damages small blood vessels and causes low blood pressure and shock. For this reason, meningococcal bacteria can kill people soon after they enter the bloodstream. Children can be perfectly healthy one minute and dead four to six hours later; the disease can be so rapid and overwhelming that even appropriate, early medical care may be too late.

High fever, headache, and stiff neck are common symptoms of meningitis in anyone over the age of 2 years. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take 1 to 2 days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion, and sleepiness. In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect. Infants with meningitis may appear slow or inactive, have vomiting, be irritable, or be feeding poorly. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures.

In order to prevent meningococcal disease the CDC recommends following good hygiene practices such as; hand washing, cleaning contaminated surfaces, covering your cough, and avoiding kissing or sharing items with a friend.

They also recommend the meningococcal vaccine. There are two kinds of meningococcal vaccines in the U.S.: Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) and Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4). MCV4 was licensed in 2005. It is the preferred vaccine for people 2 through 55 years of age. MPSV4 has been available since the 1970s. It may be used if MCV4 is not available, and is the only meningococcal vaccine licensed for people older than 55.

Both vaccines can prevent 4 types of meningococcal disease, including 2 of the 3 types most common in the United States and a type that causes epidemics in Africa. Meningococcal vaccines cannot prevent all types of the disease. But they do protect many people who might become sick if they didn’t get the vaccine.

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