Three strains of meningococcal bacteria - the critters that can cause meningitis - circulate and cause disease in the U.S. Until recently, we only had vaccines to protect against two of them. But in October 2014, the FDA approved a new vaccine for the strain known as serogroup B; on January 23rd, the agency approved a second vaccine for serogroup B, this one requiring just two doses, rather than three.
That's great news for cases like the outbreak we've seen at Providence College. In 2013 and 2014, we saw serogroup B outbreaks at colleges in New England and California. College and health officials worked with the CDC to obtain enough doses of what was then still an experimental vaccine to immunize thousands and contain the outbreaks.
It's not clear yet whether the newly approved vaccine will become part of the routine recommendations for immunization. Right now, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends all adolescents be given vaccines for the other two serogroups, with a booster around age 16.
If you're rattled by news of the outbreak, or have kids in college and worry about their safety, that's understandable. Meningococcal meningitis, which is an infection of the lining around the brain and spinal cord, can be serious and even deadly. Survivors are sometimes left with permanent disabilities. But here are a few facts, from the CDC and the RI Dept. of Health, to keep things in perspective:
- Incidents of meningococcal disease are relatively rare, and most of them occur sporadically, not in outbreaks. The bacteria that cause this disease, Neisseria meningitidis, hang out in the back of the throat and nose of about 10 percent of the U.S. population, causing no problems, for the most part. Sometimes they go on the attack and invade the body. But again, it's rare. Some people are at higher risk than others (college freshman living in dorms on campus, people with weak immune systems, people who have no spleen).
- The Rhode Island Dept. of Health and other state health agencies have specific protocols in place for containing outbreaks. That could include offering immunizations to everyone in the affected community, as well as prophylactic (or preventative) antibiotics. Now, state health officials are offering the serogroup B vaccine to all of PC's undergrads, grad students living on campus, and younger staffers. There's no plan right now to offer it to the surrounding community.
- Rates of serogroup C and Y-caused meningococcal disease have declined, according to the CDC, most likely because of more widespread vaccination. That could happen with serogroup B, one supposes, if the vaccine for that strain is included in recommendations for routine immunization.
(P.S. It's good to be back on the health beat in Rhode Island after a few weeks out!)