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Heard of the Meningitis Vaccine?

It's Safe, Effective, and Can Save Lives, Yet It's Unknown to Many

Close Contact Heightens Risk

Meningitis and other meningococcal infections typically occur in children before age 5 or in adolescents and adults living in close proximity to each other, such as in a dormitory. Offit advocates that the vaccine be considered by parents of teens, especially those in close living quarters with strangers.

"That's when the risk factors are more apparent -- crowding from living in dorms or at summer camps, where you're in close quarters to new people," he says. Add to that the dorm-life behaviors such and smoking and drinking, which can weaken the mucous-protective lining of the respiratory tract, making it easier for the potentially fatal bacteria to enter the bloodstream.

His article explains why the vaccine has not been endorsed for routine treatment in young patients by the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other health groups: It's not considered cost-effective -- meaning the money it would cost to immunize everyone couldn't be justified against what it costs to treat the disease.

Instead, the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that students entering collage be informed about the risks of the disease and the benefits of the vaccine.

"But very little we do in medicine is cost-effective -- bone marrow transplants don't save money for society," Offit tells WebMD. "Mammography isn't cost-effective."

Few Doctors Mention It

Another reason why the vaccine may be news to you: It's not covered by most insurance companies, so many doctors might hesitate in discussing it with their patients -- who would have to pay the average $80 in out-of-pocket costs to vaccinate their child for what is, statistically, a one in 125,000 chance of contracting meningococcal infection.

Another reason for doctors to hesitate: "While the vaccine is available, it's not readily available," says Carol Baker, MD, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and a member of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases.

"Doctors have to work harder to locate the vaccine because it's not routinely recommended. And while most physicians would be willing to give this to patients, the vaccine comes in a multidose vial -- you have to pay for 10 doses for a vaccine that has the same (short) shelf life as a single-vial vaccine," she tells WebMD. "That means that many doctors are very unlikely to not lose money by having this vaccine in their office."

Would she have her own teenaged children vaccinated? "In a second," says Baker, who praised Offit's article for "clearly laying out the issues of a controversial issue and being well-balanced."

Offit, author of a consumer book, Vaccines: What You Should Know, says he hopes his article will at least urge more doctors to discuss the vaccine with parents of their teenaged patients so they can decide if it's worth the expense. He and co-author Georges Peter, MD, of Brown Medical School, also advocate that physical exam forms for schools, camps, and sports activities include information about the vaccine.

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