Expanding Coverage: A New Approach to Meningitis Prevention

As a parent, sending a child off to college or into the working world is scary enough. The last thing they want to imagine is a potentially life-threatening disease. Unfortunately, they should.

On college campuses across the U.S., outbreaks of meningococcal disease (meningitis), a serious bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord, have occurred. In 2015, the University of Oregon reported seven cases with one student tragically dying from the disease. In February, two cases occurred within just one week at Providence College in Rhode Island.

Cases of meningitis have been declining since the late 1990s, but are still very much a threat. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were around 550 cases in 2013. While the highest rates of infection were reported among one year olds and adolescents between the ages of 16 and 23, meningitis can occur in all age groups. The disease is transmitted by close contact through coughing, sneezing, and kissing, making college dorms a breeding ground for potential outbreaks.

There are five strains responsible for most cases of bacterial meningitis. A vaccine covering four of these strains, A, C, W-135 and Y, has been recommended for young adolescents since 2005. A vaccine for the fifth strain, serogroup B, which causes one out of every three cases of the disease (and 40% of all cases among adolescents), was developed in 2014 and approved by the Food and Drug Administration for people between the ages of 10 and 25 years old. Though approved, the vaccine was only available for individuals with increased risk of the disease—that is until recently.

In late June, a committee at the CDC voted, recommending a partial endorsement of the vaccine in individuals aged 16 to 23. Although the committee did not grant the strongest recommendation to make it mandatory as part of the vaccine schedule, the meningitis B vaccine is available upon request and is covered by the a growing number of states under the CDC’s Vaccines for Children program as well as most private insurance companies.

The decision to not fully recommend the vaccine came at the dismay of many advocates who have seen how deadly a diagnosis can be. However, the committee opted for a more cautious approach because the disease is rare and the vaccine is costly. While the cases of meningitis B are few, there is a high mortality rate of 10% for patients who develop this disease. 

With the new decision, healthcare professionals treating adolescents should make sure their patients and parents are aware of this immunization. Many parents assume their child is already protected because they received the previously recommended meningitis vaccine. By providing additional education, parents and their child can make the decision to receive the meningitis B vaccine, gaining more protection against all strains of the disease and leaving one less worry for parents as send their child off to school.