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Everything Parents Need to Know About the Meningitis Vaccine

Meningitis can kill within 24 hours. The vaccine, on the other hand, is extremely safe.

Cavan Images/Getty

Bacterial meningitis is a killer. It comes out of nowhere, and before you even realize you’re infected, it’s already done serious damage, disabling and even killing its victims. The fatality rate can be up to 12 percent, and 20 percent of those who survive are left with permanent injuries such as brain damage, hearing loss, or loss of a limb. In the mid-1990s, cases surged to 1.2 cases per 100,000 people. Babies faced the most danger, but teens and young adults were also at high risk, often falling victim to the disease in their college dorm rooms, where students lived in group settings in close proximity. Thankfully, the disease landscape has changed dramatically since the introduction of the meningitis vaccine in 2005. As of 2019, cases were barely 10 percent of what they had once been two decades ago. 

Why Your Child Needs the Meningitis Vaccine

The meningitis vaccine prevents meningococcal disease, a bacterial infection which causes meningitis in half of all cases and pneumonia in 15 percent. Still, many of those who contract the bacteria remain asymptomatic.

Symptoms are marked by a stiff neck, nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, and confusion. All too often it’s deadly, with a 10-15 percent fatality rate even with appropriate antibiotic treatments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Survivors are often left with serious injuries — 20 percent suffering hearing loss, neurological damage, or loss of a limb.

At What Age Should You Get the Vaccine?

In the U.S. two types of meningococcal vaccines are currently offered. The most common type is typically given to tweens aged 11-12; the other isn’t routinely offered and is mostly for teenagers aged 16-18.

Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY) 

MenACWY is the main vaccine that people think about when they think of the meningitis vaccine. It protects against meningococcal bacteria A, C, W, and Y, as the name implies. The vaccine is necessary for all kids over the age 11, and in some cases, much younger if children are at an increased risk of contracting the disease.

  • Kids 11-12 years old should get their first shot followed by a booster shot at age 16. Teens who get the shot after age 16 don’t require a booster shot.
  • Younger children, ages 2 months to 10 years, may need to get the vaccine if they’re at a higher risk. This includes if they  live near an outbreak, are traveling to a country with an ongoing outbreak, or if they have certain disorders that can compromise their immune system, such as sickle cell anemia or HIV.
  • Adults who are immunocompromised, living near an outbreak, or in the military are also recommended to get the vaccine. 

Meningococcal B vaccine (MenB) 

MenB protects against a fifth strain of meningococcal bacteria which teens aged 16-18 are most susceptible to. This vaccine isn’t routinely offered, but it’s a decision between parents and their doctor if your teen is considered at higher risk. The B strain it protects against is rare but deadly and occurs most commonly on college campuses. MenB is either given in a two- or three-dose series, a few months apart. It’s recommended for the following:

  • Teenagers age 16 through 18 who are recommended by their clinician
  • Kids age 10 and older who have a damaged or missing spleen
  • Kids age 10 and older with persistent complement component deficiency (an immune system disorder)
  • Kids age 10 and older living in an outbreak area
  • Microbiologists who work in a lab with the bacteria

Meningitis Vaccine Ingredients

In the U.S., the two types of meningococcal disease vaccinations come in various name brands, listed below. None of them contain live bacteria.

Meningococcal (MenACWY-Menactra)

Conjugate vaccines: These vaccines use antigens bound to proteins to target the immune system. Conjugate meningitis vaccines provide protection against meningococcal A, C, W, and Y.

This vaccine brand contains the following ingredients:

The Ingredient: Buffered saline 

In: Meningitis vaccines 

Purpose: Boosts body’s response to the vaccine

The Ingredient: Formaldehyde

In: Most vaccines

Use: Kills viruses or inactivates toxins

The CDC says: “Formaldehyde is diluted during the vaccine manufacturing process, but residual quantities of formaldehyde may be found in some current vaccines. The amount of formaldehyde present in some vaccines is so small compared to the concentration that occurs naturally in the body that it does not pose a safety concern.” 

The Ingredient: Diphtheria Toxoid

In: Meningitis vaccines

Use: Kills viruses or inactivates toxins

Meningococcal (MenACWY-Menveo)

This is another brand of conjugate meningitis vaccine. In addition to some of the ingredients above, it also contains:

The Ingredient: CRM

In: Most vaccines 

Use: A carrier protein that transports the deactivated bacteria to the immune system

Meningococcal (MenB – Bexsero)

Recombinant vaccines: These vaccines use bacteria grown in insect cells to replicate proteins derived from the meningitis bacteria. This produce more of the protein that is then isolated and added to the vaccine.

In addition to some of the ingredients listed above, this vaccine brand contains the following ingredients:

The Ingredient: Aluminum Salts

In: Most vaccines

Use: Boosts body’s response to the vaccine

The Ingredient: Sodium Chloride

In: Most Vaccines 

Use: Preservative 

The Ingredient: Histidine

In: Some vaccines

Use: Boosts body’s response to the vaccine

The Ingredient: Sucrose

In: Most vaccines 

Use: Preservative

The Ingredient: Kanamycin

In: Some vaccines 

Use: Kills viruses or inactivates toxins

Meningococcal (MenB – Trumenba)

This is another brand of recombinant meningitis vaccine that targets meningitis B only. In addition to some of the ingredients included above, it also includes:

The Ingredient: Polysorbate 80

In: Most vaccines 

Use: An emulsifier to hold the ingredients together

Meningitis Vaccine Side Effects

Most people experience little to no side effects from the meningitis vaccine, but some people may experience the following:

  • Soreness and redness at the injection site
  • Tiredness
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Nausea
  • Chills 
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting 

There is also a rare chance of an allergic reaction or death (as with any medication). If you’ve had an allergic reaction to vaccines in the past, talk to your doctor. 

Reasons Not to Get the Meningitis Vaccine (And Why They’re Wrong)

Thanks to the meningitis vaccine, cases of the disease are down substantially. But because cases are so low, some people may not think it’s necessary to get the jab. However, these vaccines are a lifesaver. Although it’s rare, getting bacterial meningitis is all too often deadly. It strikes within a few hours or a day, and most often patients don’t even realize what’s happening until it’s too late. While the disease can kill one in seven people who contract it, the vaccine is extremely safe and severe complications are exceedingly rare. And by doing your part, you can help protect your community at large from a deadly outbreak.