Heard of the Meningitis Vaccine?
It's Safe, Effective, and Can Save Lives, Yet It's Unknown to Many
Dec. 10, 2003 -- You've read the story before: A high school or college student complains about sudden flu-like symptoms or a stiff neck. There's a trip to the emergency room but within a day or two, the popular kid with so much promise is dead -- another victim of meningitis.
This story, sadly, is told about 300 times a year in the U.S. -- nearly once a day. Another 300 Americans, also typically teenagers, are left with permanent brain damage, hearing loss, or amputation because of meningococcal infection, an inflammation of the brain lining and cerebrospinal fluid that flows throughout the brain and spinal cord.
What's rarely mentioned, however, is that a vaccine available for the last two decades may have prevented these infections.
"I was vaguely aware of the vaccine because we actually had information on it buried in with the other college information that my son received. And now, I'm a parent who lost an 18-year-old to this killer," says Mike Kepferle, whose son died from meningitis within 24 hours of contracting it while a college freshman in March 2000.
"At the time, we really didn't know how dangerous this disease was. Since then, I have -- and I've made sure my other children were vaccinated."
Yet despite being safe and effective, the meningococcal vaccine is unknown to most Americans. That's because it is not part of the recommended immunizations schedule for children or adolescents and is routinely given only to military recruits.
Vaccine Not Mandatory
In recent years, with many meningococcal deaths occurring on college campuses, the vaccine has been recommended -- but usually not mandated -- by most colleges for incoming freshman who will live in dorms. Often, the colleges only alert parents of the vaccine but leave it to them to have their children inoculated by their own doctors.
Patrick Kepferle, who died in March 2000, had delayed getting the inoculation recommended by his university.
In this week's New England Journal of Medicine, a nationally recognized expert on vaccinations questions why more doctors and health groups haven't advocated for greater use of this vaccine -- and urges them to do so.
"I would argue that this vaccine is a perfectly reasonable choice to give everyone in adolescence," Paul A. Offit, MD, tells WebMD. "Here is a disease that affects some 3,000 Americans a year. A few hundred die from it. Another few hundred are left without limbs [from amputations] or with permanent brain damage from it. And we have a safe, effective vaccine that could prevent much of this.
"But the most striking thing of all is that most parents have never even heard there is a vaccine ... until their child is in intensive care," says Offit, chief of infectious diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.