A woman with a bandage on her arm after a vaccinationShare on Pinterest
A meningitis vaccine can be helpful in preventing gonorrhea. Jamie Grill Atlas/Stocksy United
  • Researchers say a meningitis vaccine can help prevent gonorrhea.
  • They say that’s because the bacteria that cause the illnesses are closely related.
  • Experts say younger adults as well as people who live in close quarters should consider getting a meningitis vaccine.

It’s an odd fact that the bacteria that cause meningitis and gonorrhea — two infectious diseases that otherwise have almost nothing to do with each other — are biologically related.

And that’s likely why people who get meningitis vaccinations seem to get some protection against the sexually transmitted illness as well.

“The meningitis bacteria and the bacteria that causes gonorrhea belong to the same family of bacteria,” said Dr. Cindy M. Duke, a virologist and laboratory director of the Nevada Fertility Institute and a clinical assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas School of Medicine. “So, while they’re different, it’s like having a brother and a sister.”

A trio of new studies demonstrates that the 4CMenB vaccine, administered to prevent the brain and spinal cord inflammation associated with meningitis, also can prevent one-third or more gonorrhea infections.

“Our findings suggest that meningitis vaccines that are even only moderately effective at protecting against gonorrhea could have a major impact on prevention and control of the disease,” said Dr. Winston Abara, an epidemic intelligence service officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. “Clinical trials focused on the use of 4CMenB against gonorrhea are needed to better understand its protective effects and could also offer important insights toward the development of a vaccine specifically for gonorrhea.”

The study led by Abara found that people 16 to 24 years old who were fully vaccinated against meningitis with two doses of 4CMenB were 40 percent less likely to have gonorrhea infections. Those who had received a single dose of 4CMenB had a 26 percent reduced risk of developing the illness.

Duke told Healthline that because the bacteria are closely related, the antibodies manufactured in response to an injection of meningitis vaccine also can boost the immune response against gonorrhea infection.

She noted that while there is not currently a gonorrhea vaccine, meningitis vaccines are often given when teens or young adults are going to camp or college, where illnesses can spread rapidly because people are housed in close quarters.

“The thing about meningitis is once you get the infection, it moves really quickly,” Duke said. “It’s the inflammation of the lining that covers your brain and your spinal cord. And if it’s not caught and treated early with the right antibiotic, it literally can lead to seizures, brain death, and death. And if somebody doesn’t die, paralysis.”

Prevention is also a key measure.

“The best protection is using a condom,” said Duke.

Gonorrhea can be treated with a single-dose injection of an antibiotic such as ceftriaxone, but, “because there’s so much gonorrhea right now, there is a rise in the number of resistant gonorrheas out there,” Duke noted.

While the protection offered by the meningitis vaccine isn’t comprehensive, it could become more significant as the gonorrhea bacteria becomes increasingly antibiotic resistant.

“With a gonorrhea-specific vaccine likely to take years to develop, a key question for policymakers is whether the meningitis vaccine 4CMenB should be used against gonorrhea infection,” said Peter White, Ph.D., a professor of public health modeling at Imperial College London.

His study of young men who had sex with other men concluded that the meningitis vaccine could prevent 110,000 cases of gonorrhea in the United Kingdom each year.

“Our analysis suggests that giving the vaccine to those at the greatest risk of infection is the most cost-effective way to avert large numbers of cases,” he said.

A third study found that the 4CMenB was highly effective in preventing bacterial meningitis among adolescents and young adults in Australia, as well as being 33 percent effective against gonorrhea infections.

Meningitis refers to the inflammation of the meninges, the protective fluid membrane around the brain. It can have several causes, including bacterial, viral, parasitic, and fungal infections.

Bacterial meningitis is one of the most dangerous forms of the disease: about one in 10 people with bacterial meningitis die, while up to 20 percent of survivors develop permanent impairment as a result of the infection.