Meningitis vaccines: What parents need to know – Harvard Health Blog

Meningitis can be a very scary infection — and vaccines can help prevent it.

What is meningitis?

The meninges are a membrane that covers and protects the brain and spinal cord. When that membrane gets inflamed, it’s called meningitis. One of the ways this inflammation can happen is from infection. Common symptoms of an infection of the meninges are fever, headache, and a stiff neck.

There are many different germs that can infect the meninges. Viruses cause most cases, and while this can be serious, most people with viral meningitis get better without treatment. Some may not even realize they’ve had meningitis.

Bacterial meningitis

Bacterial meningitis, on the other hand, can be deadly without immediate medical treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every year more than 2,000 people get bacterial meningitis, and about 500 of them die.

Many different bacteria can cause meningitis. In the United States, the most common are Streptococcus pneumoniae, group B streptococcus, Neisseria meningitides, Haemophilus influenzae, and Listeria monocytogenes.

We have vaccines to prevent against infections from Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Neisseria meningitidis. The first two are given in infancy as part of the regular vaccine series. The last, against Neisseria, is usually given in adolescence, although it is sometimes given earlier for children with certain health problems, before traveling to parts of the world where the infection is common, or during outbreaks.

Neisseria infections can be particularly quick and deadly, and commonly occur in outbreaks, particularly when young people live together, such as at sleep-away camps or in college dormitories. That’s why the vaccine is generally given in adolescence.

Meningitis vaccines

There are two different kinds of vaccines against Neisseria meningitidis:

All children should be vaccinated at 11 or 12 with one of the conjugate vaccines, with a booster dose at age 16. As for the serogroup B vaccine, teens should definitely get it if

  • they have a complement deficiency (this is something that is generally diagnosed by the teenage years).
  • they have a damaged spleen, or the spleen has been removed.
  • they are taking a medication called Soliris.
  • they are at higher risk because of an outbreak.

Although most pediatricians only use the serogroup B vaccine for teens at higher risk, healthy teens can get it along with the conjugate vaccine. Parents who are interested should talk to their child’s doctor.

For the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information about meningitis and the vaccines to prevent it.

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