As both a family physician and a mom, I know that the to-do list for parents is often a long one. And if you’re the parent of a high school or college student, you might not think about making sure your student is up to date on vaccines. But young adult vaccinations are critical, especially when it comes to meningitis.
Georgia public university students living in on-campus housing must be vaccinated against meningococcal disease, which describes the bacterial form of meningitis, but they likely aren’t fully protected against the disease.
While the traditional meningococcal vaccine protects against four of the common strains of meningitis, it does not protect against meningitis B — a prevalent strain that is responsible for a whopping 40 percent of the 2,600 meningitis cases in the United States.
Two FDA-approved meningitis B vaccines are available, yet they are relatively new to the market, and the CDC has not yet issued a broad recommendation on who should receive them. As a result, parents may think their children are protected when they leave for college, not realizing that the current meningitis vaccine doesn’t cover the B strain.
Parents may need to ask specifically for the meningitis B vaccine in order for their students to receive it.
Protection against all strains of meningitis is especially critical since one-fifth of all meningococcal infections occur in young adults between the ages of 14 and 24. College students are especially at risk because dorms and apartments are ideal environments for spreading the disease.
Bacterial meningitis not only progresses at an incredibly fast pace, but it is also often tragically misdiagnosed. Meningitis is frequently mistaken for the flu, since the symptoms, such as headache, fever, and nausea, are so similar — yet it moves quickly and can be deadly in a matter of hours.
I have seen the devastation of what meningitis can do to both children and families. The CDC estimates that even with prompt treatment, the fatality rate is between 10 percent and 15 percent.
Furthermore, up to 20 percent of survivors suffer permanent complications such as loss of limbs, injury to the nervous system, deafness and brain damage.
While we are waiting for health leaders at the CDC to issue broader recommendations for meningitis B vaccination and for university leaders to explicitly make meningitis B vaccination a requirement for all students, parents do not have to wait. Consider asking your child’s family physician or pediatrician about meningitis B vaccinations.
Vaccines are the most effective tools to prevent disease and save lives. With the power to protect our students from one more life-threatening illness at our fingertips, every life lost or harmed by meningitis B is one too many.
Dr. Rubin is board chair of the Georgia Academy of Family Physicians. She lives in Marietta.