Can I protect my child against meningitis?

Earlier this month an 11-year-old boy got sick suddenly at a summer camp in Milford, Pa. and died shortly afterwards from bacterial meningitis. This type of story happens several times every year, and usually makes the news since it’s so shocking. A healthy young person goes to camp, basic training or college where there is exposure to other young people from many different places, contracts meningitis, and succumbs to this frightening and very rapid cause of unexpected death.

The boy had Neisseria meningitidis, a bacteria that can cause meningitis and sepsis. Over a thousand young people contract meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial form of meningitis, every year in the US and about 15 percent of them die. This story used to be much more common, but we now have vaccines that prevent many forms of this frightening illness. Meningitis is an infection of the membranes around the brain called meninges. It can be caused by many germs, but the most rapidly progressing cause is the bacteria also known as Neisseria meningitides or Meningococcus as it was in this case. Antibiotics can cure this illness. However, the illness goes from mild to fatal so rapidly in many cases that the medicine cannot be given in time.

Meningitis, especially in young children can be caused by other bacteria. Hemophilus influenza type B commonly causes deafness, permanent brain damage, epiglottis, severe eye infections and death. It can occur in all ages, but especially attacks children under age 2. The h. Flu vaccine or Hib given at 2, 4, 6, and 15 months has been one of the miracles of my life because it has practically eliminated this formerly common illness and massively reduced deafness in children. The pneumococcal vaccine (given at the same time as Hib) has eliminated another bacterial cause of meningitis in young children. There are several vaccines for meningococcal meningitis, but they are not as universally administered as the two vaccines above and they lose their effectiveness over time.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends MCV4 (meningococcal conjugate vaccine 4 serotypes ACWY) at the 11 or 12 year old visit and a booster four to six years later. Unfortunately, this young man who died had just turned 11 at camp and probably didn’t have time to get the vaccine. A private source told me the child had Type W which is covered by the vaccine.

The MCV4 can be given down to age 2 and is recommended in young travelers to certain parts of Africa. In the United Kingdom, a separate vaccine Meningitis B is recommended for 1-year-olds, but has not been routinely introduced in the US where this type is less common. Vaccine refusal has caused several diseases to return that had been eliminated and measles has become common enough in Europe that it is strongly recommended that you get your measles vaccine (usually administered in the MMR) up to date if you are traveling abroad.

Most importantly, if your child 11 or older is going away to camp or college—make sure they have current MCV4 vaccine coverage. Every case is a tragedy.