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.