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Meningococcal infection is uncommon; however, it can cause serious illness in healthy adolescents and young adults. Below are answers to common questions about meningococcal disease and how it can be prevented through routine vaccination.

What is meningococcal infection?

Meningococcal infection is caused by the bacteria Neisseria meningitidis. It is airborne so can spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing, living in close quarters, sharing drinks/food, or kissing. Neisseria bacteria can cause meningitis, meningococcemia, or both.

  • Meningitis is when the bacteria cause inflammation of the tissues covering the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms include fever, headache, and a stiff neck. Neisseria is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children and young adults in the United States.
  • Meningococcemia is when the bacteria enter the bloodstream.  This can begin with fever and a rash but can quickly infect different organ systems, leading to shock and death. 

Is meningococcal infection serious?

Meningococcal disease can be a life-threatening illness if not treated immediately. Prompt hospitalization and treatment with strong antibiotics is lifesaving. This type of infection progresses quickly, often within 24 hours. Initial symptoms often look like the flu with fever, headache, muscles aches, and stiff neck.  Some patients will develop nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light or confusion. This bacterium causes a unique rash with dark purple spots on the torso, arms, or legs.

Serious consequences, including death in up to 15% of infections, may occur within hours. Even with early treatment, 1 in 5 people who survive have permanent disabilities. These complications include hearing loss, brain injury, loss of fingers or toes, and scarring of the skin.

Can meningococcal disease be prevented?

Fortunately, two meningococcal vaccines, Men ACWY and Men B, are available and protect against different types of meningococcal bacteria.

  • Men ACWY: This vaccine protects against four subtypes of meningococcal bacteria. Allegro Pediatrics aligns with the American Academy of Pediatrics to recommend all patients receive their first dose of this vaccine at 11 years old and a second dose at 16 years old.
  • Men B: This vaccine protects against a fifth subtype of meningococcal bacteria. Men B vaccine is important for all individuals ages 16-23, especially those will be, or are already, attending college or living in communal housing. Allegro Pediatrics aligns with the AAP recommendation of receiving the first dose at 16 years old and the second dose at 17 years old. While it doesn’t matter which brand of vaccine your child gets, it is important that both doses be from the same manufacturer.

Talk to your pediatric provider if you have any questions about the best timing to protect your teen.  Many colleges require proof of MenACWY vaccination within 5 years before starting school.  More colleges are now requiring MenB vaccination as well.

Is Men B vaccine safe and effective?

The Men B vaccine is effective at preventing serious infection. Greater than 80% of adolescents and young adults have strong antibody responses following the 2-dose series. Antibody levels do decline a year or two following vaccination, however protection is still provided during the years with highest risk of infection. Additional booster doses are not recommended at this time.

Men B vaccine is safe and may be given at the same time as Men ACWY and any other routine vaccinations. Common reactions to the vaccine are minimal and include pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and joint aches.

Are these vaccines covered?

Currently, both Men ACWY and Men B vaccines for all patients 18 years and younger in the state of Washington are covered—either by their insurance or by the Vaccines for Children program. Allegro clinics stock supply from the Vaccines for Children program. If your young adult is over the age of 18, you will need to get Men B vaccine at a pharmacy. Please check with your insurance company to see if it is covered.

Dr. Steve Schiebel is a pediatrician and the Chief Medical Information Officer at Allegro Pediatrics.

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