Parents, take note! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine committee has expanded its recommendation for immunization against meningitis B, a rare but potentially deadly strain of meningitis.
The committee's revised guidance, issued late last week, broadens the group of young people that the CDC thinks should consider getting the shot, and increases the likelihood that health insurance policies will pay for the injection.
The previous recommendation was limited to people at high risk of getting the disease — such as lab workers and students at colleges with outbreaks of three or more cases. Now the advisory committee on immunization urges all young people between the ages of 16 and 23 to talk to their doctor about whether the shot is a good idea for them, too.
Meningitis B has been to blame for a number of outbreaks on college campuses over the past few years. That's because college students who live in dorms and who frequent crowded areas seem to be at particular risk. Close contact spreads the disease.
Since 2005, there has been an effective vaccine to help protect against four other strains of bacterial meningitis: serogroups A, C, W and Y . The CDC recommends routine vaccination with this four-strain shot, starting at age 11 or 12, with a booster at about age 16. But coming up with an effective vaccine against Meningitis B has been trickier.
The bacteria that cause the illness are common in the environment and can also be found in the nose and respiratory system. They are spread in saliva and mucous, during close contact like kissing, coughing, or even just sharing a water bottle.
Symptoms of bacterial meningitis can be deceptive at first, appearing as a severe cold or flu, with headaches, nausea, and high fever. But the microbes go on to invade the brain and spinal cord, causing inflammation and swelling of protective membranes. These symptoms can escalate very quickly, within days, or even hours, and result in brain damage. And, despite treatment with antibiotics, 10 to 15 percent of patients with the disease die.
Last fall, the Food and Drug Administration approved two new vaccines against the fifth strain of bacterial meningitis, and recommended its rather narrow use by people at high risk of contracting the illness. The new guidelines say that if doctors and any patients agree the vaccine is appropriate, it should be given.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. William Schaffner, of Vanderbilt University, is a member of the CDC committee that advises federal health officials on vaccine recommendations.
Schaffner calls this revised recommendation, "a signal to all private insurers that this vaccine should be covered." It also means that the Vaccines for Children Program, a federally funded immunization program for lower income families, will likely cover the cost of the vaccine.
And, Schaffner says, it gives colleges and universities the option of requiring vaccination against meningitis B for all incoming freshman.
The CDC committee stopped short of firmly recommending that all people aged 16 to 23 get the shot; rather it urges these patients to consult their doctor about whether the shot makes sense for them — a subtle but important difference. And, so far, the committee has been silent about younger adolescents; some unanswered questions remain about the vaccine's complete effectiveness and how long it lasts. Once those questions are answered, committee members say, they'll likely revisit the recommendation, and perhaps suggest expanding it further.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Today, in your health, we have some new ways of dealing with illnesses that affect the brain. In a moment, we'll hear about new technology aimed at making it easier to care for people with dementia. First, let's hear about new recommendations for a vaccine against a worrisome form of meningitis. Here's NPR's Patti Neighmond.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Bacterial meningitis is extremely rare but potentially deadly. Vanderbilt University's infectious disease specialist, Dr. William Schaffner, says it starts out in a fairly innocuous way.
WILLIAM SCHAFFNER: It can start in a flu-like fashion, which is very deceptive, but then progress rapidly so that the persons develops this meningitis, inflammation of the covering of the brain, can become comatose or nearly so very, very quickly.
NEIGHMOND: People can become brain damaged or develop life-threatening blood infections.
SCHAFFNER: And even with our best treatment, the fatality rates are 10 to 12 to 15 percent.
NEIGHMOND: The bacteria spreads in saliva and mucus during close contact, like kissing or coughing or even sharing a water bottle. College students who live in dorms and frequent crowded areas are at particular risk. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine vaccination against four of the five major strains of meningitis, starting at age 12, with a booster at about 16. But now there's a new vaccine which covers a particularly worrisome strain.
SCHAFFNER: Group B meningitis is the most common form, and that's the form that has occurred on college campuses that we've heard so much about in the last couple of years.
NEIGHMOND: Up until now, the vaccine was only recommended for people at high risk, like lab workers and students on college campuses that have an outbreak. The new recommendation stops short of suggesting all adolescents get vaccinated. Instead, it says patients or their parents should talk with their doctor to decide. But the recommendation does pave the way for private and public insurers to cover the cost. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.