"You don't think something like this is going to happen to you," Bradley Sheffield, the Santa Clara student who lost some hearing after several days in a coma, told the San Jose Mercury News. "It's a miracle there's not more damage."
Meningococcal disease is a life-threatening bacterial illness that moves swiftly, killing 10 percent to 15 percent of those who fall ill even when they receive the right antibiotics. Many more end up with permanent damage, such as kidney failure, hearing loss, blindness, amputated limbs, paralysis and learning disabilities, according to a fact sheet published by Texas A & M University.
Why did the university create this fact sheet? Young people ages 16 to 23 are at particular risk, often because they live in close quarters in college or military barracks. The disease is spread by contact with people’s sneezes or saliva—so kissing, sharing a drink or eating utensils can be the source of infection. And that’s why students are required under Texas law to get a booster shot against meningococcus before entering this or any other college in the state.
In July, a Michigan college student died of bacterial meningitis—what the illness is called when it causes inflammation of the lining of the spinal cord and brain—while working with children at a summer camp. Three students came down with bacterial meningitis in early 2016 at Santa Clara University in California, one of whom suffered some hearing loss. Among the four UC Santa Barbara students who were sickened by bacterial meningitis in 2013, one of them, a lacrosse player, lost his feet.
Most meningococcal disease cases can be prevented by vaccination, but parents are understandably confused about the types of vaccination required and the timing for when pre-adolescents and adolescents are supposed to get them. In March 2016, the Kimberly Coffey Foundation—named for a teenager who died of the disease—and pharmaceutical company Pfizer conducted a joint survey that found about 80 percent of parents didn’t realize there were two different kinds of meningococcal vaccines.
Most children get what are known as quadrivalent vaccine—meaning it protects against four types of bacterial groups—when they are 11 or 12 years old, receiving protection from groups A, C, W and Y. But the vaccine’s effectiveness starts to wane after about five years, making a booster necessary at about age 16.
The quadrivalent vaccine doesn’t protect against bacterial group B; the disease that is relatively rare outside college settings and that killed Kimberly Coffey. The vaccine against group B, which first became available in late 2014, is listed by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a vaccine that may be given (as opposed to should be given) at age 16, but can be given up to age 23. A recent study found that this vaccine was less effective than hoped, provoking little or no immune response in a third of those who received it—but that still means it provided protection to two-thirds.
Age 16 or so is the ideal age for meningococcal vaccines, partly because those teenagers are then prepared for college. Many colleges, not just those in Texas, require the quadrivalent vaccine, and some are starting to strongly recommend the one against group B. It’s especially important to get any vaccines before college, not during, because college freshmen are the ones with the dramatically higher risk.
In Texas, the quadrivalent vaccine is required for school entry in 7th grade and for college students up to age 22. But several states have begun requiring students to get the quadrivalent vaccine before they enter senior year of high school (the dose is often still valid for college requirements).
Earlier is also financially better. The vaccines are expensive for people who aren’t insured, but the Vaccines for Children Program will cover the cost for those younger than 18. In Texas, there’s also the Texas Adult Safety Net program for uninsured adults 18 and older, but there are fewer health care providers under that program, and the criteria to qualify are more stringent.
Now, during National Immunization Awareness Month, parents of teenagers can find out more about this potentially life-saving vaccine and how to ensure their 16-year-olds are adequately protected by talking with their healthcare provider or by visiting science-based sources like the CDC.
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