- Anyone can get meningitis, but teens have a higher risk
- Meningitis is serious and life-threatening
- Meningococcal vaccines protect against most types of this disease.
Although meningococcal infections are rare, they are very serious diseases that can cause death. Even with early treatment, there is a risk of serious complications. Luckily, there is a vaccine to protect you against many of the meningococcal infections.
What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal diseases occur when the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord (called the “meninges”) get infected. If bacterial meningitis is not treated quickly, it can lead to brain problems such as deafness and/or learning problems. Bacterial meningitis can even lead to death.
How do you get meningococcal disease?
The meningococcal bacteria are usually spread by coming in contact with respiratory secretions when an infected person coughs or sneezes or by having contact with saliva (fluid in the mouth) when drinking from a water bottle, sharing straw, cigarettes, and kissing. The bacteria may live in the throat without causing any symptoms, or may cause an infection of the blood or the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.
to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the rates of meningitis have been declining since the 1900s as more people were vaccinated and now about 371 people living in the United States will got meningococcal disease in 2019. Even though the total number is low, this is a very serious illness and about 10-15% people infected with the bacteria, will die (even with treatment). The good news is most types of meningococcal disease can be prevented by getting vaccinated.
Who is at risk for getting meningococcal disease?
Anybody at any age living anywhere can get meningococcal disease; the disease is most common in children younger than 5 years (infants are particularly at risk), teens 16-21 and people over 65 are at a higher risk. College students or anyone living in crowded living conditions are at a higher risk because the meningococcal bacteria are easily spread from one person to another. About 300-500 people become infected with meningococcal disease in the U.S. each year. It is a very serious disease and even with treatment, about 1 in 10 people will die from it. For those who survive, about 20% may have permanent damage such as deafness, seizures, mental retardation, or loss of fingers and toes.
What are the symptoms of meningococcal disease?
The most common early symptoms are: high fever, headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, nausea, vomiting, and rash.
How is meningococcal disease treated?
Meningococcal disease is treated with antibiotics such as penicillin. Early treatment is very important! Even so, the best form of protection against this serious disease is PREVENTION – getting vaccinated!
The meningococcal vaccine protects against the meningococcal bacteria which can cause serious infections such as meningitis (pronounced men-in-ji-tis), a brain fluid infection, and blood stream infections. The meningococcal vaccines help protect people against the most common types of meningococcal disease that are seen in the United States.
There are 2 kinds of meningococcal vaccines that are given in the United States.
MenACWY- is the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (conjugate vaccines combines weak antigen with a strong antigen as a carrier so that the immune system has a stronger response) that protects against types A, C, W, and Y. Adolescents should receive their first dose at 11-12 years old and a booster shot at 16-18 years old.
MenB vaccine – is the meningococcal B vaccine (Bexsero® and Trumenba®) This vaccine protects a person from Serogroup “B” meningococcal disease (another type not covered by the vaccine above). It is given in addition to the conjugate vaccine to children and adults 10 years and older who live in an area where there is an increased risk for serogroup B meningococcal disease, including teens and young adults who have certain health conditions such as a problem with their spleen or before they go to college.
How does the vaccine work?
The vaccine is made up of parts of the meningococcal bacteria that cannot cause infection. After the vaccine is given, your body makes antibodies to fight the meningococcal bacteria. These antibodies then help protect your body from infection if you come in contact with someone who has meningococcal disease.
When should I get the meningococcal vaccine?
Most preteens (boys and girls) get a meningococcal vaccine when they are between 11-12 years old. A booster shot is recommended at age 16 or between ages 16-18.
Other people who should get vaccinated are those who plan to travel to places where meningococcal disease is common (such as certain regions of Africa), people who may have come in contact with meningitis, anyone who has a disorder of their immune system, anyone whose spleen has been damaged or had surgery to remove it, and anyone who studies this disease in a lab.
Do I still need to get a booster shot if I got vaccinated when I was a preteen?
Yes! Since the meningitis vaccine is thought to be effective for only about five years, you’ll need a booster vaccine about 4- 5 years after you got your first (meningococcal) vaccine. If you were 11 or 12 years old when you were vaccinated (against meningococcal disease), you should have a booster vaccine when you are 16-18 to make sure to protect yourself. If you missed your vaccine when you were a preteen, it’s not too late to get vaccinated. Talk with your primary care provider. It’s especially important to get vaccinated if you’ll be living in a dorm at college or if you are going into the military. Teens who are at high risk for meningitis should receive a booster shot every 5 years.
If you have been in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with meningococcal disease, it’s important to tell your health care provider. Ask if you had the vaccine and if you need to take antibiotics or another vaccine. This is true even if you have been vaccinated!
Are there any side effects?
Most people who get vaccinated will not have any side effects and serious allergic reactions are rare.
The most common side effects are:
- Redness and/or soreness where the shot was given
- Mild swelling around the area of the shot
- Slight fever
These discomforts are usually temporary but may last for a few days. It is uncommon to have side effects from vaccines. Serious allergic reactions are rare (hives, swelling of the face/throat, dizziness, weakness, fast heartbeat) and start within a few minutes-1 hr. after the shot is given and require medical care right away.
If you think you might have had a side effect from a vaccine, talk to your primary care provider. If you think you have had an allergic reaction, go to the nearest emergency room. Later, call 1-800-822-7967 or log on to vaers.hhs.gov to report the incident.
Is there any reason why I should wait or not get the meningococcal vaccine?
Most pre-teens and teens get the meningococcal vaccine without any problems. However, there are some reasons when you should wait or not get it.
You should not get the meningococcal vaccine if you:
- Have had an allergic or bad reaction to the meningococcal vaccine in the past
- Have had a serious allergic reaction to any part of the vaccine (for example, the vaccine fluid)
- Are very sick when you are scheduled to get the shot (call your primary care provider and reschedule your appointment).
- Are pregnant or breastfeeding and have a low risk of infection.
Is there anything else I should know before I get the meningitis vaccine?
Yes. It’s a good idea to ask your primary care provider about your vaccine history.
Questions to ask may include:
- Are there any reasons why I shouldn’t get the meningococcal vaccine?
- Do I have any known allergies to any medicine or vaccine?
- What should I do if I come in contact with someone who has meningococcal disease?