MONDAY, June 11, 2007 (HealthDay News) -- Sunscreen, swimsuit, bug repellent -- and the meningitis vaccine? Experts say the potentially lifesaving shot is now a "must-have" item for kids headed off to camp this summer.
"Many parents are aware [of the need for vaccination] when kids are leaving for college but don't think of it for early adolescence--they are not aware of the fact that the CDC is recommending vaccination for younger children," said Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, a 7,000-member organization that aims to ensure that the nation's camps are safe and healthy.
Since 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics have recommended that children aged 11 to 12 undergo routine immunization against meningococcal disease, which includes meningitis.
Nancy Ford Springer, a founding board member of the National Meningitis Association, was one of those who testified before the CDC urging that young people be immunized against meningococcal disease.
Her son, Nick, contracted the illness when he was 14 and away at camp. She speculates that he became sick after sharing water bottles with his fellow campers.
Nick survived, but not until he had both his legs and hands amputated because the infection had gotten into his bloodstream. He is now 22, a college student and a champion athlete -- he won the 2006 gold medal at the World Wheelchair Rugby Championships, Christchurch, New Zealand.
"I'm all for sending kids to camp -- we sent Nick back to camp for three more years --but also for parents speaking to their pediatricians about vaccinating their children before going to camp," said Springer, who is a teacher for the deaf in Westchester County, N.Y.
To that end, the National Meningitis Association is working with the American Camp Association to increase awareness among the parents of campers as well as camp directors and counselors on the importance of vaccinating children before they go away to camp. Making sure that kids don't share water bottles or eating utensils can also cut down the risk.
Meningococcal disease is a result of either viral or bacterial infection. The viral infection is less severe, but the much rarer bacterial form can lead to meningitis, pneumonia and blood stream infections and prove lethal.
"Although there are only 2,000 to 3,000 cases [of meningococcal bacterial illnesses] per year, they tend to be serious. There is a 10 percent mortality rate and 10 to 20 percent of patients have significant and permanent damage, including neurological, hearing and learning problems," said Harry Keyserling, a professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
The bacteria are spread through the exchange of respiratory and throat secretions, such as occurs after coughing, kissing or sharing drinks from the same bottle. Fortunately, none of the bacteria that cause meningitis is as contagious as the common cold or the flu, and they are not spread by casual contact or by simply breathing the air where a person with meningitis has been, according to the CDC.
Those living in a close, barracks-type environments with a lot of other people -- such as college students, campers or those in the military -- are especially vulnerable to contagion, Keyserling said.
Particularly insidious as well is that the disease moves very quickly. Unfortunately, the early symptoms of meningitis mimic the simple flu, so patients and their parents often don't know that they should seek immediate treatment.
"Because meningococcal infection can be so rapid, often by the time the patients seeks treatment it's relatively late in its course. This is a disease you need to prevent rather than treat," Keyserling said.
The recommended vaccine is effective against four of the five causes of meningococcal disease, Keyserling said, including the most common infections, so that the vaccination is 80 percent effective. Only one injection is required to provide immunity.
Keyserling supports the CDC's recommendation for vaccinations for young people.
"It's very exciting that we have a new vaccine that will meet the need to decrease the cases of serious illnesses in the U.S., and we have to encourage parents to have their children vaccinated," he said.
To learn more about meningococcal disease, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Contol and Prevention.