Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: My son is headed for college, and I've heard he should get the meningitis vaccine. Our doctor didn't recommend it, so I figured he'd be fine without it. Is the vaccine really that important?

Dear Reader: In a word, yes. Meningitis is a serious bacterial infection, and the vaccine is very important. Although rare -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports between 600 to 1,000 cases per year -- meningitis starts suddenly, escalates quickly and can be fatal. Between 10 and 15 percent of those who contract meningitis don't survive. Of those who do, up to 19 percent live with complications that range from hearing loss and diminished kidney function to amputation and brain damage.

The CDC recommends that teens and young adults (that's anyone 16 to 23 years old) get vaccinated with a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine. In fact, a growing number of colleges and universities require incoming students to have received the vaccine before allowing them to move into a dorm. For those of you with preteens and teens up to 12 years old, the CDC recommends a meningococcal conjugate vaccine, to be followed up with a booster at age 16.

Meningitis is an infection of the meninges, the trio of protective membranes that enclose the brain and spinal cord. The disease occurs when certain bacteria enter the bloodstream and reach the brain and spinal cord, where they start an infection.

In addition to bacteria, meningitis can be caused by a virus or a fungus. Most people who contract viral meningitis, which is often milder, recover without treatment. Fungal meningitis is quite rare and tends to occur in individuals with weakened immune systems. Bacterial meningitis, swift and relentless, is the most severe and requires immediate treatment.

In this case, when we echo the CDC's recommendation of the vaccine, one of us speaks from experience. As a college student, before the vaccine was available, Dr. Glazier contracted bacterial meningitis. Not only did it derail her senior year, the experience was so all-consuming that it changed the course of her life.

One morning, Dr. Glazier woke up with symptoms of a severe flu -- high fever, headache, extreme body aches and exhaustion. She made it to one class but additional symptoms, including sensitivity to light and vomiting, sent her to seek medical help. By the time she was admitted to a local ICU that afternoon, where she tested positive for bacterial meningitis, her kidneys had shut down and she was in septic shock. She stayed in the ICU for a month, then went through treatment and rehab for the rest of that year. Like so many young people who are struck with this disease, her first impulse was to stay in bed and sleep it off. Forcing herself to go to class, where it became clear she was having a medical crisis, saved her life. The intensity of the illness, as well as the community of medical professionals who worked to cure her, are the reasons that Dr. Glazier changed majors and became a doctor.

We hope that you'll find the time to bring your son back to your family doctor for the meningitis vaccine. It can be a lifesaver.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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