THURSDAY, Oct. 25, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- At the beginning of every school year, concerned parents rush to get their kids the meningitis vaccine, with demand sometimes outpacing supply.
It doesn't have to be that way, experts say, since this potentially lifesaving shot is available year-round.
While August and September are fine times to vaccinate, the vaccine can also be gotten earlier or later, the experts note. That's important, they add, since meningitis can strike anytime.
"It's a year-round disease," said Lynn Bozof, executive director of the National Meningitis Association. "It can strike anyone at anytime."
Bozof should know: She lost her son Evan, then 20, to the disease in 1998.
"It actually peaks in the wintertime," added Donna Cary, a spokeswoman for Sanofi Pasteur Inc., of Swiftwater, Penn., the drug company that makes both of the meningitis vaccines currently available in the United States.
Meningococcal disease is a viral or bacterial infection, with the bacterial form being rarer but much more deadly. The disease is spread through air droplets and via direct contact with persons who are infected such as by kissing, sharing drinking glasses or coughing, according to the National Meningitis Association.
Every year in the United States, nearly 3,000 people come down with bacterial meningitis, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and about 10 percent to 12 percent -- or about 300 to 360 cases -- are fatal. Those who survive may have complications such as brain damage or limb amputation.
Bacteria can attach to the nasal mucosal lining and mucosal lining in the throat and multiply there. They can then enter the bloodstream, traveling rapidly and causing organ damage.
Meningococcal meningitis is the term given to an inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. The presence of bacteria in the blood is called meningococcemia. Pneumococcal meningitis mainly attacks younger children but can affect older children, too.
Another type of bacterial meningitis, Haemophilis influenzae type b disease, has been nearly wiped out since infant vaccine programs against HIb began in the mid-1980s.
Viral meningitis, another form, is not typically as deadly or debilitating as bacterial meningitis, and those stricken usually recover on their own.
Teens and young adults make up nearly 30 percent of all U.S. cases of bacterial meningitis, the CDC estimates.
The good news: Up to 83 percent of these cases among teens are thought to be preventable by vaccination, according to estimates from the National Meningitis Association.
Two vaccines are currently available in the United States. "Menomune was on the market first," explained Cary of Sanofi Pasteur. Next came Menactra, available since 2005.
Menactra is the vaccine typically given for routine vaccinations, Cary said, while Menomune would be given if an outbreak of meningitis occurred.
The vaccines cost about $90 to $120 and are typically paid for by insurance plans or covered by childhood vaccine programs, Bozof said.
Menactra protects against four of the most common strains of meningococcal disease, Cary said, including strains A, C, Y and W135. It doesn't protect against strain B, but "no vaccine is available that does [that]," she said.
Preventing the disease is much preferred to treating it, the experts say, but they warn that even those who are vaccinated can still get the disease, as no vaccine is perfect. Teens and young adults in particular should know the symptoms, which are flu-like in the beginning and include nausea, vomiting, headache and fever, along with a stiff neck.
Immediate medical care is crucial. Antibiotics are given, and early treatment is important. Still, it does not guarantee a full recovery.
To learn more about meningitis, visit the National Meningitis Association.