FRIDAY, Feb. 23, 2007 (HealthDay News) --The bad news, according to health experts, is that bacterial meningococcal disease can strike year-round.
The good news is that a vaccine to prevent this potentially deadly infection is also available year-round.
So said experts at a Friday teleconference sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Meningitis Association (NMA).
The teleconference focused on vaccine shortages that occurred last summer as parents rushed to get school- and college-bound children immunized.
"Demand is high and concentrated around school time, and there was a supply reduction," said Dr. Tom Clark, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "Now the supply is recovered, and people should be vaccinated. The vaccine can be given any time of the year."
Most cases of meningitis are caused by viral infections, but about one in 25 are caused by bacterial or fungal infections. Bacterial meningitis, while relatively rare, is much more severe than the viral form and can lead to disability and even death. Bacterial meningitis infection strikes up to 3,000 Americans each year and leads to death in about 300 cases. Teens and young adults are particularly vulnerable, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all cases in the United States.
"This must always be considered a serious and potentially deadly disease," Clark said. "Even with rapid and appropriate medical treatment, about 10 to 14 percent will die from it, and this includes young, healthy people." Those who survive may suffer serious long-term effects such as hearing loss, brain damage, kidney failure and limb amputations.
Infections can strike the blood -- called meningococcemia -- or the fluid of the spinal cord or the brain, a condition called meningitis, the CDC notes.
The disease most often hits preteens, teens and young adults, and the symptoms can be confused with less-threatening illnesses. Those symptoms can include a sudden high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and exhaustion. Sometimes a rash develops. If these symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is crucial, including antibiotics.
Certain lifestyle factors, including crowded living conditions, a move to a new residence, and attendance at a new school with students from geographically diverse areas, are thought to heighten the risk for the disease.
In 2005, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a new meningococcal disease vaccine that's believed to last longer than the older vaccine. The new vaccine, marketed as Menactra, is approved for use in people aged 11 to 55 years and protects against four of five strains of bacteria that cause the disease.
Current CDC guidelines for the new vaccine recommend routine vaccination at three different age milestones, starting with children 11 or 12 years old. If they miss that shot, children should be vaccinated when entering high school, experts say. The agency also recommends that college freshmen living in dorms be vaccinated.
"The highest risk time is 15 to 18 years old," said Dr. Carol Baker, president of the NFID. "Adolescents need to be vaccinated before they get to college. Don't wait till a week or month before."
The older vaccine remains available for people 2 to 10 years old and over the age of 55. That vaccine is only effective for three years, so, if that amount of time has elapsed, individuals should consider being revaccinated.
"Many parents are unaware that children are at increased risk or that a vaccine is available," said NMA president Lynn Bozoff, who lost her 20-year-old son, Evan, to meningococcal disease. "Tragically, even parents who are aware of the dangers of this disease and that there is a vaccine available, can be affected by this disease when they wait [too long] to vaccinate."
"For the price of a pair of athletic shoes, we can immunize our children," added Dr. Nancy Snyderman, medical correspondent for NBC.
To learn more about meningitis, visit the National Meningitis Association.