The Meningcoccal Vaccine: Health 101

Learn why and when your child needs the meningococcal vaccine.

Why does my child need the meningococcal vaccine?

Meningococcal disease causes one of the scariest and most dangerous childhood diseases -- and this vaccine significantly reduces your child's risk of coming down with it. The meningococcal vaccine protects your child against four of the five most common strains of bacteria that cause meningococcal disease, which is a leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children ages 2 to 18 in the United States. (Meningitis -- an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord -- also results from other bacteria, like those that the Hib and pneumococcal vaccines protect against.) Meningococcal disease can also cause a life-threatening blood infection called sepsis.

Meningococcal bacteria are spread from person to person, from coughing, sharing food or utensils, or kissing. They're not as contagious as a cold or flu bug, since the germs can't live outside the body for more than a few minutes, but meningococcal disease is very serious. A child who contracts it can become deaf, lose a limb, or suffer seizures or strokes and sustain permanent brain damage. About 10 to 15 percent of those who develop meningitis may die.

The most common symptoms of meningitis are a high fever, headache, and stiff neck in anyone over age 2; symptoms may develop over several hours or it may take up to one to two days. Infants, however, are less likely to exhibit these symptoms, though they may appear extra sluggish, fussy, or have no appetite. Other signs of meningitis include nausea and vomiting, sleepiness, confusion, and discomfort looking into bright lights. In serious cases where a blood infection occurs, a child can go from being healthy to being in a coma in just a few hours.

Up to 3,000 people get meningococcal disease in the U.S. every year, and babies under 12 months, college freshmen, and people with certain immune system deficiencies are most at risk. Though the meningococcal vaccine cannot prevent all types of meningitis, 90 percent of those who get vaccinated will be fully protected against the four types of bacteria it does cover.

What's the recommended meningococcal vaccine schedule?

The meningococcal vaccine is given as one shot between ages 11 and 12. It may also be recommended for younger children in high-risk groups, including those who have damaged spleens or who may have been exposed to a meningitis outbreak. The vaccine is also recommended for other high-risk groups, like college students living in dorms who have not been previously vaccinated, or to anyone of any age exposed to meningitis during an outbreak.

Although babies are highly susceptible to meningococcal infection, the current vaccines are not recommended for children under 2. However, a vaccine that targets infants is being tested and may be available within a couple of years.

The meningococcal vaccine is safe to be given along with other vaccines. It's available in two forms: The newer one, MCV4, is preferred to MPSV4, which has been available since the 1970s. Experts believe the more recent version provides better, longer-lasting protection against meningococcal disease.

Who shouldn't get the meningococcal vaccine?

While the meningococcal vaccine is one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommended childhood vaccinations, children who fall into the following categories should not receive it:

  • Kids who've had a severe allergic reaction (including difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, a fast heart beat or weakness or dizziness) to a previous meningococcal shot.
  • Those with a history of Guillain-Barre syndrome (a nervous system disorder also called GBS).
  • Kids who are moderately or severely ill (more than just a cold, for example) should wait to get vaccinated.
  • Anyone under 2 years old.

Talk to your doctor if you're concerned about whether or not the meningococcal vaccine is safe for your child.

Are there any side effects from the meningococcal vaccine?

Contracting meningitis or sepsis is very dangerous, much more so than any side effects from the vaccine. Though allergic reactions are possible, the meningococcal vaccine generally only causes mild side effects.

  • Up to 50 percent of kids will experience redness, swelling, or warmth near the shot site.

As with any vaccine, severe allergic reactions are rare, but possible. If you notice your child having difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat shortly after he receives a shot, call your doctor right away.

Is the meningococcal vaccine really necessary?

Until a vaccine is available for babies, protecting adolescents and adults is the best way to keep this very high-risk group safe. "Although thousands of people still contract meningococcal disease each year, these rates are at an all-time low," says Paul Offit, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and American Baby magazine advisory board member. "That's likely due to the increased use of this vaccine in children. And since the latest, more effective version became available in 2005, we should start to see those numbers drop even more as vaccination becomes more widespread."

Sources: Paul Offit, MD, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania and a member of the American Baby magazine advisory board member. Michael T. Brady, MD, the Vice Chair of the AAP's Committee on Infectious Diseases. CDC sections on Meningococcal Vaccination. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Vaccine Education Center section on Meningococcal Vaccination. Immunization Action Coalition section on Meningococcal Vaccinations. Medline Plus: a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health section on Meningococcal Vaccination. The Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 299 No. 2, January 9/16 2008.


Copyright © 2008 Parents.com. Updated 2010

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