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Meningococcal Vaccine: What You Need to Know

1. What is meningococcal disease?

Meningococcal disease is a serious bacterial illness.  It is a leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children 2 through 18 years old in the United States.

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Meningitis is an infection of fluid surrounding the brain and the spinal cord. Meningococcal disease also causes blood infections.

About 1,000 - 2,600 people get meningococcal disease each year in the U.S.  Even when they are treated with antibiotics, 10-15% of these people die. Of those who live, another 11 -19 % lose their arms or legs, become deaf, have problems with their nervous systems, become mentally retarded, or suffer seizures or strokes.

Anyone can get meningococcal disease.  But it is most common in infants less than one year of age and people with certain medical conditions, such as lack of a spleen.  College freshmen who live in dormitories, and teenagers 15-19 have an increased risk of getting meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal infections can be treated with drugs such as penicillin.  Still, about 1 out of every ten people who get the disease dies from it, and many others are affected for life.  This is why preventing the disease through use of meningococcal vaccine is important for people at highest risk.

2. Meningococcal vaccine

There are two kinds of meningococcal vaccine in the U.S.:

- Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) was licensed in 2005. It is the preferred vaccine for people 2 through 55 years of age.

- Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4) has been available since the 1970s. It may be used if MCV4 is not available, and is the only meningococcal vaccine licensed for people older than 55.

Both vaccines can prevent 4 types of meningococcal disease, including 2 of the 3 types most common in the United States and a type that causes epidemics in Africa.  Meningococcal vaccines cannot prevent all types of the disease.  But they do protect many people who might become sick if they didn’t get the vaccine.

Both vaccines work well, and protect about 90 percent of those who get it.  MCV4 is expected to give better, longer-lasting protection.

MCV4 should also be better at preventing the disease from spreading from person to person.

3. Who should get meningococcal vaccine and when?

MCV4 is recommended for all children and adolescents 11 through 18 years of age.

This dose is normally given during the routine preadolescent immunization visit (at 11 to 12 years of age).  But those who did not get the vaccine during this visit should get it at the earliest opportunity.

Meningococcal vaccine is also recommended for other people at increased risk for meningococcal disease: 

  • College freshmen living in dormitories.
  • Microbiologists who are routinely exposed to meningococcal bacteria.
  • U.S. military recruits.
  • Anyone traveling to, or living in, a part of the world where meningococcal disease is common, such as parts of Africa.
  • Anyone who has a damaged spleen, or whose spleen has been removed.
  • Anyone who has terminal complement component deficiency (an immune system disorder).
  • People who might have been exposed to meningitis during an outbreak.
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WebMD Public Information from the CDC

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