An advisory panel on immunization practices for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that middle school children, high school freshmen, and college students living in dormitories be immunized with a new vaccine to prevent bacterial meningitis.
“These new recommendations will help save the lives of teens and college students across the country,” Lynn Bozof, the executive director of the National Meningitis Association, said in a statement about the Feb. 10 guidance issued by the CDC. The association, based in Lexington Park, Md., educates the public about the dangers of the disease. About 3,000 cases of bacterial meningitis are reported in the United States every year, according to the CDC, with 10 percent to 12 percent of those becoming fatal.
One reason bacterial meningitis is so deadly, said CDC spokeswoman Jennifer Morcone, is that it strikes so fast. The bacterial infection is transferred by exchanging respiratory and throat secretions. A person might be perfectly fine one day, only to become sick and die within 48 hours. The initial symptoms—including high fever, neck stiffness, headache, and exhaustion—are similar to those of the flu. If untreated, bacterial meningitis can cause hearing loss, brain damage, or death.
“It rapidly progresses,” said Ms. Morcone, who urged parents and educators to inform students about the disease’s symptoms and encourage them to seek medical attention promptly.
The new vaccine, which uses the trade name Menactra, was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration in January for 11- to 55-year-olds. Unlike a previous vaccine, whose protection lasted only five years, the new vaccine can work for up to 10 years and safeguards against four strains of bacterial meningitis, two of which are responsible for the largest proportion of the disease in the United States.
Five million doses of the vaccine are expected be distributed in the first year, but that will not be enough to vaccinate every student in the recommended age range.
Parents and teachers need to be aware of the disease, said CDC officials, because although adolescents are less likely than infants to get the disease, they are more susceptible to dying from it.