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The New Meningitis Vaccine for Older Children
Before entering kindergarten, children receive the last of their “baby shots.” After that, they get a break from immunizations for a while. But new vaccines are being developed to protect older children from serious illnesses. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics now recommend that 11- and 12-year-old children as well as teen-agers and youngsters entering high school or college receive the new meningitis vaccine, Menactra, to protect them against meningococcal disease.

What is meningococcal disease?
Meningococcal disease is a serious infection caused by the meningococcus bacteria. It leads to infection of the bloodstream and meningitis, an infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of meningococcal disease include fever, severe headache, stiff neck, sensitivity to light, sleepiness, confusion, seizures and a skin rash of purple spots.

Thankfully, meningococcal disease is rare. There are approximately 2,600 cases in the United States each year, and antibiotics are available to treat it. However, the infection can move very quickly and have severe consequences. Even with treatment, approximately 10 percent of people with meningococcal disease die, and 15 to 20 percent of survivors are left with brain damage, hearing loss or amputated arms or legs.

How is it spread?
Meningococcus bacteria is carried in the nose and throat and spread from person to person through saliva and mucus. For example, it can be spread by kissing or by sharing food and drinks.

It is most common in infants under a year of age, teenagers between 15 and 18, young adults living in dormitories and anyone with a damaged spleen or problems of the immune system.

How can your child be protected from meningococcal disease?

1. Get the vaccine:
  • Who should get it? All 11- to 12-year-olds; children entering high school or those who are 15 years of age; college freshman living in dormitories; children 11 years or older with a damaged spleen or certain disorders of the immune system; people traveling to or living in areas of the world where meningococcal disease is common (e.g., parts of Africa); and those who have been exposed to meningitis.
  • How many doses are needed? One dose provides about 90 percent protection from four different types of meningococcus. The old vaccine lasted three to five years, and the new vaccine is expected to last longer. It can be given at the same time as other vaccines.
  • Who should not get the vaccine? Anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to a previous vaccine. Although you can get the vaccine when you’re mildly ill, anyone who is severely ill should wait until they’ve recovered. Since the new vaccine has not been studied extensively in pregnant women, it should be given only if absolutely necessary.
  • What are the side effects? Like any medicine, vaccines can cause side effects. However, this is considered very safe. About half of the people who get it develop mild redness or soreness at the injection site, which can last for one to two days. A smaller percentage of people develop a mild fever. Serious allergic reactions are rare.

2. Follow good hygiene: To prevent spreading germs, teach your children not to share food, drinks or lipstick; to cough into their elbows instead of their hands; and to wash their hands frequently with soap and water.

3. Call your doctor immediately if your child has close contact with someone with meningococcal disease.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician