Meningitis Vaccination

With the return of students to colleges and universities, the common question is, should my child be immunized with the meningitis shot? Let's look at some of the issues.

What meningitis are we talking about?
The currently available vaccine is specific only against a bacteria named Neisseria meningitidis. There are many other types of infectious agents which can cause meningitis (an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord), the most common of which are bacteria and viruses from the upper respiratory tract. It should be noted that the incidence of meningitis caused by the bacteria Haemophilus influenazae has dramatically decreased in the last decade since the widespread use of a vaccine in infants.

What makes this particular meningitis so important?
Although the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis may not cause huge numbers of cases of meningitis, it can be a very rapidly progressive and hard-to-detect disease with devastating consequences. Neisseria meningitidis causes 2,400-3000 cases of invasive disease in the United States each year. Death occurs in 10% of cases, and serious complications occur in another 11-19%. Yes, and as you know it makes the national news.

Why are college students at higher risk?
The close institutional setting increases the risk (3-23 times higher) as shown in various studies comparing dormitory students to those living elsewhere. Certain factors can possibly increase the risk of this disease, including colds, alcohol related behaviors, exposure to tobacco smoke, and irregular sleep patterns.

How effective is the vaccine, and are their side effects?
The meningococcal vaccine is up to 90% effective in older children and adults. Immunity probably starts decreasing after 3 years. Side effects are no different than most vaccinations and are minimal, but could rarely include pain and redness at the injection site, fever, malaise, headache, allergic reactions, seizures, and paresthesias.

So should I get the vaccine, or have my child get it?
Some colleges are requiring it; otherwise it's your choice. Talk about it with your doctor. It's sort of like using a seat belt. It's practicing prevention. Although as you know, nothing is perfect.

What else?

  • Meningococcal bacteria are transmitted like most other upper respiratory infections, through air droplets and direct contact with persons who have the infection.
  • In outbreaks of meningococcal disease, antibiotic prophylaxis to close contacts, as well as vaccinations can be used.
  • Persons other than college students who should receive the vaccine include those with underlying immune deficiencies including asplenia, and those traveling to sub-Saharan Africa.
  • The Meningitis Foundation of America


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page last updated on January 17th 2000