When we hear that someone has been diagnosed with meningitis, we pray that it’s viral. The bacterium Neisseria meningitides is one of the cruelest of our bacterial pathogens – and there are many. Although quite a few of us have the bacterium as part of our natural bacterial community, it may be deadly to those you are close to, even fatal in a very short time. The thought that a kiss can be deadly is not one we want to dwell on, but our time in college is also a time when we explore relationships and may even meet the person we spend the rest of our lives with! To me, it should not be an option. If there’s a vaccine out there that can prevent our young people from transmitting this pathogen through a simple kiss, then vaccinate!
I remember being diagnosed with “suspected meningitis” on a family holiday in Western Ireland. I was probably about 11 at the time. I vaguely remember a splitting headache and nausea, a hospital bed, grim faces, even grimmer talk of a flight to London, and a lumbar puncture – which turned out to be negative. I don’t remember being scared, I didn’t know anything about the disease at the time, but I suspect my parents were terrified. It’s not just the human toll in illness, disabilities and lives lost; the emotional toll – the fear – amongst students, faculty, staff and health workers at an educational institution cannot be easily quantified. The economic toll however is vast – of a real or perceived outbreak – canceled events, students withdrawing from school, declining recruitment, etc.
It’s not always an easy decision, given the mixed messages we are given from the media. We’ve had approved vaccines for meningitis for a number of years, but the recent outbreaks that have tragically shaken US campuses in recent months have been caused by a strain that we call Serogroup B – not one that the older vaccines, sensibly required by a limited number of States for almost all incoming students to dormitories on their campuses, are effective against. Fortunately, approval of a Serogroup B vaccine has been expedited and the first one was approved in October 2014, the second this January. So, we don’t have several years of widespread use to confirm the safety of the product, but at the same time, the process of approval is fairly rigorous with several thousand people tested, with a few reporting the usual side effects of a sore arm, headache, diarrhea, and other minor and temporary complaints.
It’s beginning to look a little like the measles debate, if you opt out, you put public health at risk. These may not be fully tried and tested vaccines, with multiple years of data to support their safety, but everything science knows about them is that they will save lives. My public health background tells me this is absolutely the right thing to do – and our scientific colleagues are working tirelessly to improve the efficacy and safety of our vaccines every day. This isn’t a religious or political choice – if you decide not to vaccinate you reduce our herd immunity – our ability to withstand the onslaught of disease. You are responsible for other people’s morbidity and mortality, make your choice.