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New meningitis vaccination recommendations

In a departure from past recommendations, a government panel is now recommending that all college freshmen living in dorms be vaccinated for meningitis. The panel is also advising doctors to inoculate all 11-to 12-year-old children.

The new recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is a reversal of previous policy and was driven by the availability of a new vaccine, Menactra. Widespread vaccination for college students was not recommended the last time this issue was addressed in 1997, due to the high cost of vaccination and the fairly low risk of contracting bacterial meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis is an infection of the spinal cord and brain coverings that requires prompt treatment with antibiotics. Symptoms of the disease begin with headache, high fever, and neck stiffness. The infection progresses very quickly and can lead to brain damage, hearing loss, organ damage, limb amputation, and eventually death. Because it is passed through respiratory and throat secretions, meningitis can spread very quickly through cramped college dorms via coughing, kissing, or sneezing. Though the baseline risk for meningitis is very low to begin with, this risk is six times higher for college students living in dorms, especially freshmen, than for college students overall.

Although bacterial meningitis risk has not increased, holding steady at about 3,000 cases per year in the U.S., increased vaccination for meningitis will certainly save lives. The new vaccine provides many improvements on the last available vaccine. It is effective for more than eight years, while the old vaccine lasted for just three to five years. The new vaccine also prevents people from becoming carriers of the bacteria, unlike the older version.

March 2005 Update

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