Unfortunately, meningitis B has caused tragedy in Atlanta. I was saddened to read about a case in 2021 at the Marist School where a 17-year-old honors student and dancer died. She fell ill with symptoms mimicking the flu. But within days, she had passed.
Meningitis strikes fear in the hearts of parents, teenagers and young adults. While the disease is relatively rare — there are roughly 1,000 meningitis B cases a year in the United States — the effects are devastating. Of those who contract it, 10%-15% will die, and 20% of those who survive suffer permanent disabilities such as brain damage, hearing loss, loss of kidney function or limb amputations.
Unlike diseases that primarily afflict elderly or compromised populations, meningitis targets young, otherwise healthy patients. And the initial symptoms present as the flu, delaying lifesaving treatment in far too many cases. That leads to worse outcomes. Symptoms escalate quickly, with death coming within a day or two of first feeling ill.
Thankfully, there are vaccines that protect against meningococcal diseases. However, confusing federal guidance and the complicated nature of the disease itself have caused limited adoption of vaccines.
One key factor is that there are five strains of meningococcal disease: A, B, C, W and Y. One of the vaccines now on the market protects against A, C, W and Y. Another vaccine is needed to protect against the most dangerous B strain.
However, there is good news on the horizon. A new vaccine is expected to hit the market in the coming months that will protect against all five strains of meningitis.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, an advisory board that is part of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will meet Wednesday to issue recommendations on the new vaccine. The ACWY vaccine is now recommended, but the B vaccine received a “shared clinical decision making” recommendation. This means the vaccine is not routinely recommended, but that the decision to vaccinate should be made between physicians and patients based on their individual risk.
The results? According to CDC data in 2021, 89% of adolescents have received at least one dose of the ACWY vaccine, but only 31% have gotten the menB vaccine, the most dangerous variant.
And these low vaccination rates are likely even worse among communities of color and lower socioeconomic groups. Vaccinations are a front-line issue for those concerned with health equity, as I am.
I am pleased that ACIP will have an opportunity to advise patients and doctors on the new vaccine that will protect against all strains. This is not about mandates or requirements, it’s about giving sound medical advice to doctors, patients and parents, ensuring that we immunize as many people, across all socioeconomic groups, as possible.