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New Vaccine Against Meningitis on the Way

Health officials also announce broader recommendations for which youngsters should get it

TUESDAY, March 8, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Health officials on Tuesday announced the imminent arrival of a new, more powerful meningococcal vaccine, along with broadened recommendations for which young people should get the shot.

"The availability of this vaccine is a huge step forward in the prevention of meningococcal disease," Dr. Nancy Rosenstein, with the National Center for Infectious Diseases, said during a press conference.

"With the licensure of the new conjugate vaccine, up to 70 to 80 percent of cases theoretically could be prevented among adolescents and young adults through widespread vaccination," added Dr. William Schaffner, a board member of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the new vaccine, which will be sold as Menactra, in January. It should be available within the next month or so, the health officials said.

That will come as welcome news to the parents of teenagers, the age group that's most susceptible to the sometimes fatal disease. Thirty percent of the cases in the United States involve adolescents, with 83 percent of those cases preventable by vaccine.

Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that affects about 3,000 Americans each year and is the leading cause of meningitis; it's fatal in about 10 percent of cases. The mortality rate can be higher in adolescents and college students, perhaps as many as one in five cases. The disease is spread via respiratory secretions.

"Transmission is a two-stage process," Schaffner explained. "The bacteria can be transmitted from person-to-person and then find a home in the upper reaches of the throat where it can sit quietly for prolonged periods of time but, while there, can be transmitted to other people through rather close contact."

The bacteria can also break away and invade the bloodstream and the spinal fluid, which is when illness occurs. The disease can be fatal within hours or days.

Lynn Bozof, executive director of the National Meningitis Association, recalled that her son, Evan, a 20-year-old pitcher for his college baseball team, died 26 days after developing the disease. While he was fighting for his life, surgeons had to amputate both arms and legs. And, in fact, up to 20 percent of survivors can suffer permanent disabilities including brain damage, hearing loss, amputation of limbs and kidney failure.

A major risk factor for transmission is close living quarters. "This happens among recruits in military service and in dormitories, particularly where freshmen gather together and get very intimate with each other in a variety of ways," Schaffner said.

The updated recommendations were approved by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Specifically, the committee recommended routine vaccination for meningococcal disease for pre-teens aged 11 to 12 years, adolescents about 15 years of age entering high school and college-bound students. Each stage is a social landmark that Schaffner hopes "is meaningful to parents, to adolescents and to school officials."

Although these are the high-priority groups, Rosenstein emphasized that any adolescents who want to be vaccinated should be able to do so. The new vaccine is only licensed for individuals 11 years and older, Rosenstein said.

The existing vaccine has been around for more than 30 years, but has a limited duration (three to five years), and does not affect transmission of the disease from an asymptomatic person.

"The new vaccine gives a much longer duration. If a re-immunization is necessary, it will boost and, if enough people are vaccinated, eventually [it] will begin to interrupt transmission," Schaffner said.

Officials are not sure how long the vaccine is effective, but probably at least eight years, Rosenstein said. "If they get vaccinated at age 11, they should be vaccinated through the risky first year in college."

Supplies should start to be available this month or next. "Any day is what we're told," Rosenstein said. The manufacturer, Aventis Pasteur, is anticipating some limitations in supply during the first few years while it boosts its production capacity.

"These recommendations are vital because they offer us a great opportunity to protect adolescent and young adults, an age group that is a target of this devastating disease," Bozof said. "There's nothing I wouldn't do to have my son back and I can't urge parents enough to do whatever they can to protect their child. You've got a disease that can kill your child in hours. You've got a vaccine that is safe and effective. To me, it is a no-brainer."

More information

To learn more about meningitis, visit the National Meningitis Association.

SOURCES: March 8, 2005, news briefing with William Schaffner, M.D., board member, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, professor and chairman, department of preventive medicine, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Tenn.; Nancy Rosenstein, M.D., chief, epidemiology section, Meningitis and Special Pathogens Branch, Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases, National Center for Infectious Diseases, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Lynn Bozof, executive director, National Meningitis Association
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