Having worked in the pharmaceutical advertising industry for over 12 years, my ears automatically perk up when I hear a drug commercial listing off every possible side-effect of any given medication by a major pharmaceutical company.
However, this time, it was the patient, not the side-effects that caught my motherly attention – a young teen in a hospital bed looking ghastly ill with a concerned parent over his shoulder. The commercial was for a meningococcal B vaccine.
Having never heard of it, I quickly learned that meningococcal disease is a type of meningitis caused by a bacterium called Neisseria meningitidis or meningococcus. There are five serogroups (“strains”) of meningococcus: A, B, C, W, and Y.
There are three types of meningococcal vaccines currently licensed by the FDA:
- Meningococcal conjugate vaccines (MCV4)
- Meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine (MPSV4/ MenACWY)
- Serogroup B meningococcal vaccines (MENB)
Though not common, meningitis B represents 40 percent of all meningococcal disease cases among adolescents and young adults in the U.S. and can cause long-term effects such as loss of limbs, blindness, or deafness. On average, 1 in 10 adolescents and young adults (10 through 25 years) who develop meningitis B will die from it—some within 24 hours.
The MenB vaccines are new, approved only in late 2014-early 2015.
Yesterday, a 17-year-old college student was placed into an induced coma in Dunedin Hospital located in New Zealand with meningococcal disease. Those who came in close contact with the year 13 Mount Aspiring College student have been offered an antibiotic to reduce the risk of developing the disease.
The disease is transmitted only by close personal contact, allowing bacteria to pass from the nose and throat of one person to another. Examples include coughing, sneezing, and kissing.
Signs and symptoms of the disease include looking “really unwell” and getting worse, fever, a skin rash, headache, nausea and neck stiffness and irritation by bright light. The incubation period is usually three to four days but can be up to 10 days.
Interestingly, yesterday’s news also reported an ongoing southern California outbreak of meningococcal disease caused by serogroup C which primarily affects men who have sex with men (MSM).
From March through August, 25 cases were identified in southern California. Two patients died. Roughly 87 percent were MSM. Two patients had HIV.
To contain the outbreak, local public health officials in July recommended the MenACWY meningococcal conjugate vaccine for all MSM. Nationwide, vaccination is recommended for all patients with HIV.
A particularly aggressive strain of MenW has recently caused increased disease in university students; its steep rise due to a virulent ST-11 strain that causes severe disease in healthy teenagers and young adults. This strain is more deadly with a higher than usual death rate.
With my soon-to-be 18 year old starting her senior year in high school and applying for colleges, I suppose we need to add the MenB vaccine to our “to do” list — or at the very least, talk to the pediatrician about it….