As college campuses prepare to welcome a new batch of students, an MUSC pediatrician said parents should make sure their college-age children have gotten the meningitis B vaccination.
There are two vaccines against Neisseria meningitidis, a bacterium that can cause meningitis. Only one is on the regular schedule of childhood vaccines and also required by most colleges – the meningitis ACWY vaccine, which targets four strains of meningococcal bacteria. The meningitis B vaccine was licensed in the U.S. in 2014, and it’s left to the doctor’s judgment whether to recommend it, said pediatrician James R. Roberts, M.D.
The meningitis B vaccine is recommended for teens in two doses between the ages of 16 and 18. Roberts prefers that students are vaccinated during their senior year in high school, nearer to the time they head off to close living situations, whether that’s college dorms or military barracks.
“We really want to recommend that they get kids vaccinated for it. Meningitis is deadly. It attacks quickly, and it can kill teenagers fairly quickly, too,” he said.
Bacterial meningitis is rare but life-threatening, in part because people become seriously ill very quickly with symptoms that at first seem to be the flu or a bad headache. The bacteria cause swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord and can also infect the bloodstream. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease is fatal for up to 20% of patients, and up to 19% of survivors will suffer lifelong consequences, including brain damage, deafness and loss of limbs.
A series of outbreaks on college campuses in recent years drew attention to the disease. The CDC defines an “outbreak” as two or more cases. A CDC review reported two deaths between January 2013 and May 2018 connected to college campus outbreaks.
Because there’s a peak in meningitis B in early infancy and then again in late adolescence, studies are currently underway looking at vaccinating infants, Roberts said.
Although the disease is rare, Roberts doesn’t take chances with it. Meningitis spreads fairly easily in close quarters, he said. The vaccine is safe, although, he added, it is one of the more painful vaccines.
Nonetheless, he said, “From a personal standpoint, as soon as it was available, I got my college student son vaccinated for it.”