What It Is and What It Protects Against
Meningococcal disease, a highly contagious bacterial illness, is spread either through the air (via coughing and sneezing) or directly from one person to another (such as through kissing). The disease is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children between the ages of 2 to 18. Meningitis, infection of the fluid around the brain and spinal cord, can be treated with antibiotics, however the CDC states that the best preventive measure is through vaccination. Although the disease affects all ages, college students living in dorms are more at-risk due to a shared living space that may also involve risk factors such as smoking (or proximity to it), unhealthy sleep habits, and living in a crowded environment. College freshmen who will be living in a dorm room, and individuals between the ages of 19 and 26 are encouraged to get the vaccine.
Although recommended for college students planning to live in a dormitory, the meningococcal vaccine is also recommended for individuals with certain medical conditions, for young adults, as well as for anyone who plans to travel to high-risk countries (such as parts of Africa). Booster shots may be required through adulthood as well, and can be determined by speaking with your doctor.
The vaccine is offered in three versions in the United States. Two are quadrivalent (meaning that there are four types of meningococcal disease which the vaccines help to fight). These are:
- MCV4 (meningococcal conjugate vaccine): not available for adults over 55.
- MPSV4 (meningococcal polysaccharide vaccine): licensed for adults over 55.
MCV4 is the preferred vaccine, and is recommended for children and adolescents between the ages of 11 and 18. It is also recommended for high-risk individuals between the ages of 2 through 55, college freshmen who plan to live in dorms, U.S. military recruits, anyone traveling to high-risk countries for the disease, or individuals who have an immune system disorder or spleen damage. The MPSV4 may be used if the MCV4 is not available; MPSV4 is licensed for adults over 55 years old, whereas MCV4 may not be used in the 55-plus age group.
The third, Menhibrix is bivalent—meaning it helps fight two forms of the disease. It is a combination vaccine that also protects against diseases caused by Haemophilus influenzae infection. Menhibrix is approved for use in infants 6 weeks through 18 months of age.
One dose is recommended for most people. A second dose may be suggested for high-risk individuals.
Who Should Not Get It
Anyone who meets the following criteria should not get the meningococcal vaccine:
- anyone who experienced a past severe allergic reaction to the meningococcal vaccine
- anyone who experienced a past severe allergic reaction to any part of a vaccine
- anyone who is currently moderately-to-severely ill is advised to wait until a full recovery before getting vaccinated
- anyone who ever had Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)
- *the vaccine is considered safe for pregnant women, however the CDC states that MCV4 has not been studied in pregnant women
Potential Side Effects
Though the risk of serious harm from the vaccine is small compared with the actual untreated disease, the meningococcal vaccine does hold some risk, from mild to severe side effects.
Mild side effects include:
- redness or pain at the site of the shot (reportedly more common from the MCV4 shot)
Severe side effects include:
- severe allergic reaction
- risk of developing Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS): according to the CDC, the risk is so slight “that it is currently not possible to tell if the vaccine might be a factor.”