Behind every child’s high fever lurks a parent’s fear that a soaring temperature could indicate something worse—like meningitis. With early symptoms that masquerade as the flu, the dreaded bacterial form of the disease can turn deadly within hours and leave survivors with brain damage or limbs that require amputation. Though rare (600 to 1,000 annual cases in the U.S.), bacterial meningitis—also called meningococcal disease—poses a serious public health concern for colleges, where close living quarters promote transmission. From March 2013 to March 2015, four college campuses experienced outbreaks. In the past school year, at least three college students died from the disease.
On Wednesday, the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) will vote on whether to recommend routine vaccination against the specific strain, serogroup B, responsible for the recent outbreaks. As of today, children ages 11 to 12 are routinely vaccinated against four of the five major strains of meningococcal disease—serogroups A, C, W, and Y—with a booster at age 16. Until last October, no serogroup B vaccine existed; the FDA has since approved two. ACIP, a 15-member committee of medical and public health experts, convenes three times a year at the CDC’s Global Communications Center to set national immunization policy. At its February meeting, the committee endorsed the serogroup B vaccine for specific high-risk groups. Tomorrow they will weigh whether to extend that recommendation to all adolescents and provide the missing link in the protective barrier against bacterial meningitis.
Until fairly recently, kids and young adults received no protection against meningitis. In 1998, Lynn Bozof of Marietta lost her son Evan, a junior baseball pitcher at Georgia Southwestern State University, to the disease. At the time, a meningococcal vaccine existed but was not routinely administered. In 2000 Bozof testified in front of the CDC, and in 2002 she co-founded the National Meningitis Association, an awareness and advocacy group. The CDC ultimately recommended routine vaccination in 2005.
“My husband and I had gotten Evan every vaccine that was recommended before he started college, but no one told us there was a vaccine available for meningitis,” says Bozof. “The military had been using it for 20 years, because think about it, being in the barracks is very similar to being in a dorm.”
The National Meningitis Association is now advocating for the wider recommendation of the serogroup B vaccine. They distributed a report to ACIP and other organizations and sent ambassadors to the February ACIP meeting. Their mission is to put a personal face on what, for the CDC, is a data-driven decision—guided by a strict methodology that factors in the reach and impact of a disease and the safety, efficacy, and cost-effectiveness of a vaccine. (The CDC could not comment on the upcoming vote.)
“If you ask a parent who has lost a child, of course they would say everyone should receive this vaccine,” says Bozof. “But [the CDC has] different criteria. There’s public health versus your own individual health, and they have to weigh those factors. I think even if it’s only one life being saved, it’s worth it.”
Seventeen years ago, Bozof’s son called to tell her he had a migraine. Hours later he was in intensive care, and weeks later he died. Her grief is still raw. “I think if I didn’t feel like I was doing something positive, I would just scream,” she says. “I would just scream all day because the hurt is so bad.”
ACIP meetings are open to the public and broadcast live via webcast. For more information visit the ACIP website.