Meningitis is an infection of the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meninges). It can affect anyone but is most common in babies, young children, teenagers and young adults. Many people carry the bacteria in their noses and throats without becoming infected but can pass it onto others (carriers). It is thought that an estimated 1 in 4 young adults may be carriers. This means that the bacteria can spread easily from person to person in crowded areas like schools, colleges or university accommodation.
In the UK, children receive a number of vaccines against various strains of meningitis, the first being given at 2 months of age (Meningitis B), and the last at 14 years of age (Meningitis ACWY) (see https://www.rocprivateclinic.com/meningitis-vaccination-update/ for more details). The Meningitis ACWY jab protects against four strains of meningococcal disease which cause meningitis and septicaemia – strains A, C, W and Y. It was introduced in 2015 after it was shown that the more aggressive W strain was becoming increasingly common.
Meningitis can be very serious and often fatal if not treated quickly. It can cause life-threatening blood poisoning (septicaemia) and result in significant after-effects that can be life-altering.
Despite this, recent official figures from Public Health England show two-thirds of teenagers who turned 18 last year did not choose to receive the Meningitis ACWY vaccine as a catch-up, with lower uptake than the previous year (39 percent). It suggests more than 400,000 school leavers per year in England did not receive the new Meningitis ACWY. Officials say there has been a rapid increase in Meningitis W cases across England, from 22 cases in 2009-10 to 210 in 2015-16. More recent figures show that there was a further 11% increase in Meningitis W cases in the first quarter of 2017, compared with the same time period in 2016.
One of the likely reasons for the decrease in uptake is the fact that teenagers who missed out on the vaccine due to their age now have to be pro-active in making an appointment with their GP or health provider to obtain the vaccine. A similar scenario occurred in 2015 with the introduction of the new Meningitis B vaccine for babies born after June 2015. Babies aged 3-6 months were eligible for a catch-up vaccine, however, babies over 6 months of ages were not eligible for this, despite the fact that children up to 5 years of age are considered vulnerable to the disease.
Who decides the immunization schedule?
In the UK, the JCVI (the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) makes recommendations to the UK government about which vaccines should be introduced, and for which groups of people. They consider criteria such as the burden of disease in the UK, on how safe and effective the vaccine is, and on cost-effectiveness and impact of introducing a new vaccine. Other countries may use different criteria to reach their decisions about which vaccines to introduce, and will therefore end up with different schedules.
Do you think that meningitis vaccines should be available to everyone instead of targeted groups? Let us know your thoughts.
And please, take your teenagers to the doctor to receive this life-saving vaccination!