Vaccines Protect Against Meningitis and Other Diseases

The recent death of a Pawnee County child due to complications of meningitis has sparked questions and concerns from area parents. According to Kathy Sebert, Tulsa Area Immunization Coalition coordinator, there are no particular “typical” types of the disease that are common in Oklahoma and, because the case with the infant was in Pawnee County, the Tulsa Health Department did not investigate the case. However, parents can arm themselves with information about the disease.

“Meningitis can be bacterial or viral,” Sebert said. Bacterial meningitis is a much more serious form of the disease. Currently, vaccines cover four subtypes of bacterial meningitis, but there is no vaccine that protects against subtype B, which causes approximately one third of all the meningococcus cases in the United States. “In 2001, 65 percent of cases in infants ages one year or younger were caused by subtype B,” Sebert said.

“There are about 1,000 to 1,200 people that get bacterial meningitis every year just in the United States,” Sebert said. “And even when treated with antibiotics, 10 to15 percent of the people die and another 11 to 19 percent can lose their arms or legs, have problems with the nervous system, become deaf, mentally retarded or have strokes or seizures.”

Because bacterial meningitis is so severe, it is important for children and adolescents to get the appropriate immunizations to protect them. “The vaccine schedule has been set up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” Sebert said, “and has been thoroughly studied and continues to be studied so every vaccine is carefully examined and tested before it comes out to the public.”

The vaccine is typically given to young children between 9 and 23 months of age.

Adolescents should receive the vaccine at age 11 or 12, then get a booster dose at age 16. If parents have missed the recommended vaccine schedule, they can begin the vaccine or catch up with immunizations based on a different schedule, so there is no reason to skip the vaccination.

Parents of adolescents may overlook this vaccine since it is not required in Oklahoma. Colleges, however, including those in Oklahoma, often require the vaccine for entering students.

“Adolescents, teens and college students are at increased risk for contacting meningococcal disease (including meningitis),” Sebert said, “because of the likelihood that they might live in close quarters, such as dorms, be in crowded situations for long periods, share glasses and eating utensils, kiss, smoke or engage in activities that may weaken the immune system, such as not getting enough sleep.”

And college students will often put off going to a doctor if they have symptoms. Meningitis is tricky because the symptoms resemble the common cold, though they continue to progressively worsen. “You will have a fever, runny nose, headache and stiff neck and it is progressive,” Sebert said.

If you suspect your child has symptoms of meningitis, act early. “You want to check with your physician right away and get your child in to the clinic,” Sebert said. If you do not have a doctor, go to the emergency room to rule out meningitis or other illnesses that can have serious consequences. “The longer treatment is delayed, the more likely there will be complications. Just a few hours difference can be critical.”

Hesitating in getting any kind of required or recommended immunization is dangerous, as it has led to increases of vaccine-preventable diseases in some areas of the country. “These diseases still exist in other countries and they are only a plane ride away,” Sebert said.

The meningococcal disease is most common in infants below one and people that are between the ages of 16 to 21. “If we work hard to at least prevent the most common ones among our infants, children and adults, we can keep up herd immunity.” By vaccinating critical members of a community to keep a disease at bay, those who cannot be immunized will still benefit, thus providing “herd immunity.”

The health department is working with Tulsa Area Rotary Clubs for the annual “Be Wise Immunize” at the Tulsa Air and Space Museum” event on April 21, 2012 from 10 a.m.- 2 p.m. This is a prime opportunity for children 18 years and under to get the required and recommended vaccines for school and childcare, including the meningitis vaccine. An added benefit of bringing your child to the immunization event is that he or she will get in to the Tulsa Air and Space Museum at no charge along with two family members.

If you can’t attend the event, there are other ways to get the immunizations your child needs. “With the vaccines for children program in Oklahoma, if your child is uninsured, underinsured, Native American, Native Alaskan or South Sea Islander, [the Health Department] can make the vaccine available at no charge,” Sebert said. All you need to do is accompany your child and bring a current immunization record.

“We are living in a time where there are more and more vaccines being developed, and parents do not see the diseases any more,” Sebert said, “but they see there are lots of vaccines. So sometimes I think they get worried there are too many vaccines. But there are not; they have all been tested [for safety] and scientifically documented.”

Categories: Health