Summer brings with it a flurry of activity as parents and young adults shop, pack and prepare for the move to college. When you’re in the midst of your fifth department store trip for dorm essentials, the last thing on your mind is protection from meningitis B. However, if you are a college-age student or the parent of one, it is critical that you educate yourself on the risks of meningitis B and discuss receiving the vaccination with your doctor.
These are the facts:
- Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord.
- Meningitis can be caused by many kinds of bacteria and viruses.
- Meningitis caused by a bacteria called “meningococcus” is among the most serious.
- Meningococcus B meningitis (“Meningitis B”) is relatively rare–but disproportionally affects children under the age of 1 and young adults between the ages of 16-24.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) records show 134 cases of meningitis B in 2017 resulting in 16 deaths.
- Meningitis B commonly presents as flu-like symptoms, but it can be fatal within 24-36 hours of the symptoms beginning.
- While both the meningitis vaccines (ACWY and B) are listed on the CDC’s list of recommended vaccinations, the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine, which provides immunity for meningitis B, is less often required for school/college admission.
Several types of meningitis–including viral, fungal, parasitic and amebic—exist, but bacterial meningitis is the singular type that can be prevented through immunization. According to Immunize.org, “MenACWY vaccines provide no protection against serogroup B disease, and meningococcal serogroup B vaccines (MenB) provide no protection against serogroup A, C, W or Y disease.” It is critically important that families understand that MenB is needed for protection against neisseria meningitides, as all types of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria can be “highly lethal in a short period of time,” says Allison Messina, M.D., a Johns Hopkins All Children’s pediatric infectious diseases specialist.
Even though children under 1 year of age have the highest incidents of meningitis B, the cases that receive the most media attention are patients in their late teens and early 20s.
“Looking at the data, meningitis B is not very common, but when you get it, it is very serious,” Messina explains. “You have a young person who is alive one day and dead the next and that gets people’s attention.”
Recent college outbreaks have been reported at Rutgers, Columbia and San Diego State University–the latter opting to require the meningitis B vaccine for all students. “Outbreaks most often occur where you have people living in close quarters. College students living in dorms and military members in barracks are at higher risk,” Messina explains. “Sharing cigarettes or drinks, kissing or other intimate contact also increase risk.”
The symptoms of meningitis B can mimic the flu with non-specific complaints such as nausea, muscle pain and fever. If symptoms include neck stiffness, severe headache and sensitivity to light, seek immediate medical attention. And if you find out your child has been exposed to someone who has meningitis B, consult your physician for prophylactic treatment options.
The Johns Hopkins All Children’s infectious disease team recommends children be up to date on all vaccines before going to college, particularly if they are going to live in a dormitory. The two Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved vaccines for meningitis B are Bexsero and Trumenba. Parents should speak with their child’s pediatrician for information on vaccine administration. Young adults should check with their primary care physician or their college student health center for information.
Messina’s advice to parents: “For the most complete protection I would recommend giving teens both meningitis vaccines even though the meningitis B is optional on the CDC schedule. This vaccine is so important because this disease is so fatal, and there is almost no time to intervene once your child becomes ill.”