August 8, 2005-- Posted at 3:25 PM CDT
(HealthDay News) -- Lynn Bozof's son Evan was a healthy junior at Georgia Southwestern University who pitched for his college baseball team.
When he called home one March morning in 1998 complaining of a migraine, his mother advised him to go to the emergency room. Hours later came the startling diagnosis: He had meningococcal disease, a potentially deadly infection that frequently occurs among people who live in close quarters, such as college dorms.
Less than a month later, Evan was dead.
Since then, a lot has happened in the fight to save others from the disease, said Lynn Bozof, executive director of the National Meningitis Association, a nonprofit organization founded by parents of children who have died or suffered long-term effects of the disease.
Perhaps the biggest development was the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval earlier this year of a new meningococcal disease vaccine that's believed to last longer than the older vaccine.
And in May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strengthened and broadened the guidelines for those who should get the shot.
Meningococcal disease is a bacterial infection that strikes up to 3,000 Americans each year and leads to death in about 300 of these cases. Teens and young adults are particularly vulnerable, accounting for nearly 30 percent of all cases in the United States. A recent study revealed that one in four infected teens will die. Of those who survive, up to 20 percent will suffer a permanent disability, such as limb amputation, hearing loss, even brain damage, according to the National Meningitis Association.
Infections can strike the blood -- called meningococcemia -- or the fluid of the spinal cord or the brain, a condition called meningitis, the CDC notes.
The disease most often hits preteens, teens and young adults, and the symptoms can be confused with less-threatening illnesses. Those symptoms can include a sudden high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and exhaustion. Sometimes a rash develops. If these symptoms occur, immediate medical attention is crucial, including antibiotics.
Certain lifestyle factors, including crowded living conditions, a move to a new residence, and attendance at a new school with students from geographically diverse areas, are thought to heighten the risk for the disease.
In the past, the CDC has recommended that college freshmen, especially those who plan to live in dormitories, be informed about the vaccine.
Under the guidelines released in May, the CDC now recommends routine vaccination of children 11 or 12 years old. If that's not done, they should be vaccinated when entering high school. The agency also recommends that college freshmen living in dorms be vaccinated. Within three years, as more of the new vaccine becomes available, the CDC hopes to recommend routine vaccination beginning at age 11.
The vaccine, marketed as Menactra, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January for use in people aged 11 to 55 years. It is injected intramuscularly in one dose.
The new CDC guidelines have been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which issued a policy statement agreeing with the guidelines.
"These recommendations do improve our ability to prevent meningococcal disease in adolescents and older children," said Dr. Joseph Bocchini, a Shreveport, La., pediatrician and member of the academy's Committee on Infectious Diseases.
Parents will be made aware of the new guidelines through their children's pediatricians, among other avenues, he said.
"At the present time, no booster is thought to be needed," he said. As more experience is gathered with the new vaccine, experts will decide if a booster shot is needed later, he said.
The older vaccine, called Menomune, was thought to be effective for three to five years.
Parents should discuss the new vaccine with their children's pediatrician when a child turns 11, Bocchini said. For certain kids, the earlier the better for the vaccine. These children include those with certain immune deficiencies and kids born without a spleen, he said.
But the new vaccine, while offering longer-term immunity than the older vaccine, still isn't perfect, Bozof said.
"No vaccine is 100 percent effective," she said. "It's important for parents and their children to be aware of the symptoms of meningococcal disease, and also to know there are things they can do to reduce their risk. The main thing is not sharing water bottles, lipsticks, lip balms, utensils and beverages," she added.
By Kathleen Doheny, HealthDay Reporter
To learn more about meningitis, visit the National Meningitis Association (www.nmaus.org ).