Alphabet Soup of Meningitis Vaccines: A, C, W, Y, B… What does it mean?

In my previous post I discussed the many different types of meningitis and most of the vaccines used to prevent them. Meningococcal meningitis deserves its own post because there are different strains of meningococcus and different vaccines to cover those strains. We’re familiar with the recommended vaccine schedule, but one type of meningitis vaccine falls into a lesser known category, so it’s very confusing. Here I’ll discuss the two main types of meningitis vaccines that protect against meningococcal meningitis as well as the recommendations for their use.

Meningococcal meningitis can refer to any meningitis caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis, but there are many different types of N. meningitidis. We have vaccines to protect against types A, C, W, Y, and B.

Who gets N. meningitis?

Infants, teens, and young adults are most likely to get meningococcal meningitis. You can see from the graph that infants have the highest risk, followed by the elderly, but there is a bump in the adolescent years. Among the adolescents, 16-23 years of age is the highest risk.

Meningococcal disease incidence by age.
Source: CDC

People at increased risk

Like most infectious diseases, risk increases if there are a lot of people living in close quarters. This is why college outbreaks occur, but even teens and young adults not in college are at a higher risk.

People who have weak immune systems or a damaged or missing spleen are at higher risk.

Sub-Saharan Africa is called the meningitis belt. People who live or visit there are at risk.

Living in or visiting areas of a current or recent outbreak of course elevates the risk.

Working in a lab that handles N. meningitidis bacteria is considered high risk.

Anyone at higher risk should talk to their doctor about when they are eligible for meningitis vaccines. These recommendations differ from the standard vaccine recommendations.

Rates of meningitis are falling

Rates of meningococcal disease have been falling in the US since the 1990s, mostly due to the routine use of meningococcal vaccines. Among 11 through 19 year olds, the rate of meningococcal disease caused by serogroups C, W and Y has decreased 80% since tweens and teens were first recommended to get a meningococcal conjugate vaccine.

Interestingly, serogroup B meningococcal disease has declined even though vaccines were not available to help protect against it until the end of 2014.

It is difficult to measure the impact of these vaccines because the overall incidence of the disease is so low. It takes large numbers of vaccines over time to measure effectiveness because the disease is so rare. It’s easier to notice change when something is frequent. The less common something is, the harder it is to follow trends and measure incidence.

Vaccines to prevent meningococcal meningitis

In the United States there are two types of meningococcal vaccines, quadrivalent and serogroup B.

Quadrivalent Conjugate Vaccines (MCV4)

Menactra and Menveo are different brands of meningococcal conjugate vaccine. These protect against serogroups A, C, W, and Y. Because there are four serogroups, it is called quadrivalent, shortened MCV4 – meningococcal conjugate vaccine 4.

Between 80-90% of tweens and teens vaccinated with Menactra show immune protection one month after completing the series. This protection drops to 70-90% of adults vaccinated with Menactra.

Between 70-90% of tweens, teens, and adults vaccinated with Menveo show immune protection 1 month after completing the series of vaccine.

The immunity from the MCV4 vaccines seems to fall after about 5 years.

Side effects from the vaccines are generally mild and self resolve within a few days. These side effects include redness and pain in the area of the injection as well as fever. More serious reactions, such as an allergic response, are possible but rare.

Any vaccine (or use of a needle for a blood draw) can lead to fainting in tweens and teens. It is recommended that they sit for 15 minutes after all vaccines and blood draws. This can help to prevent a head injury if they fall when they faint.

Routine recommendations

MCV4 is usually first given when kids are 11 to 12 years of age, followed by a booster at age 16 years.

The vaccine’s protection falls over time, so two doses are necessary. For most US children, getting the vaccine at 11 years protects through the early period of increased risk and the booster at 16 years covers the late teen and young adult years.

High risk groups

Children between 2 months and 10 years who are considered high risk based on the risk categories above should be vaccinated earlier.

Adults should get the MCV4 vaccine if they have the risk factors noted above.

Serogroup B Vaccines

Bexsero and Trumenba are meningococcal vaccines that protect against serogroup B. These vaccines are commonly called Meningitis B vaccines, or MenB. These vaccines are significantly different from one another, so if the series of vaccines is started, it needs to be completed with the same brand. They are not interchangeable, as are most vaccine brands. There is no preference of one brand over another.

Bexsero is a 2 dose series. Doses should be 1 month apart. Between 60-90% of people show immune response 1 month after completing the 2 dose series.

Trumenba is a 3 dose series. It should be given at 0, 1-2, and 6 months. If the 2nd dose is delayed beyond 6 months, only 2 doses are required. Eighty percent of people show a protective immune response one month after completing the series.

Side effects to MenB vaccines are generally mild. They include soreness, redness and swelling of the injection area, fatigue, headache, muscle or joint pains, fever, nausea, and diarrhea. If these symptoms occur, they generally self resolve within a week. More serious reactions, such as an allergic reaction, are possible but rare.

Again, it is recommended that tweens and teens sit for 15 minutes after all vaccines and blood draws due to the risk of fainting.

High risk people

MenB vaccines are recommended for people at high risk between 10 and 25 years of age.

Healthy, low risk people

The tricky part is that Men B vaccine is only given permissive use for most 16-23 year olds.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) makes recommendations for vaccine use based on all the data that is collected. Members of the Committee felt that the data available did not support the routine use of MenB vaccines, so it is not on the list of recommended vaccines.

What is permissive use?

Permissive use means it is approved for use, but it isn’t one of the standardly recommended vaccines.

This category is given because the vaccine is felt to be safe, but there is not sufficient evidence to recommend that it be given routinely.

Is it ever required for healthy people?

Some colleges require it. This is often due to a recent local outbreak so they are considered high risk.

Does insurance cover it if it’s not recommended?

Most often insurance does cover the MenB vaccine, but this is one of the concerns raised by the groups who argued that it should be routinely recommended. They argued that some insurance companies might not cover it if it is not recommended.

If you plan to get the vaccine, you should check with your insurance carrier to see if it is covered.

Why isn’t it recommended for everyone?

The meningitis A,C,W,Y vaccine is recommended for everyone at 11 and 16 years of age, so why isn’t the meningitis B vaccine recommended for all?

MenB vaccines protect against the majority of currently circulating strains of meningococcal B, but not all. The MenB vaccine also gives only a short duration of protection.

It is expensive to vaccinate, and since there is a relatively low incidence of meningitis B disease, it would take a lot of money to prevent a single case. While no price can be put on the value of human life, the overall risk remains low to individuals, even when they are not vaccinated. All of these factors led to the committee’s decision.

Dr. Vincent Iannelli discusses the risks and benefits in more detail at Understanding the Recommendations to Get a Men B Vaccine if you want more details.

Where can you get MenB if you choose to get it?

Physician offices, student health care centers, pharmacies, and county health departments might offer the MenB vaccine. Since it is not on the standard schedule, they might opt to not carry it. If you desire it, you should ask if it’s available.

My office offered the MenB vaccine last summer, but we did not have enough patients want it after discussing the current recommendations. Much of our stock went unused and had to be wasted.

We did not feel that we could push it strongly despite the fact that we were losing money on unused stock.

I know this might surprise some who believe that doctors are just pharmaceutical shills. (Shills is a term used to imply that doctors offer vaccines only to make money despite knowing about their dangers.)

My partners and I didn’t push this vaccine because we didn’t believe strongly in it. We bought it to be able to offer it to patients who desired it, but since we couldn’t honestly say we recommended getting it, we had few want it.

In the end we decided to not re-order it. We no longer offer MenB vaccine.

We strongly believe in giving the vaccines that are recommended. Recommended vaccines have been shown to not only be safe, but also effective in preventing disease. They can make a big impact on our health as individuals and as a community.

Final MenB Vaccine Thoughts

Unfortunately, the MenB vaccine has failed to show sufficient effectiveness to support the cost of vaccinating everyone.

Putting value on one person’s life is not possible, so if my patients want this vaccine, I suggest they go to the health department, a pharmacy, or student health on their college campus.

I do not think it is wrong to get the vaccine. I simply can’t say that everyone should get it.

Some students must get it due to their school’s requirement. If a school requires it, that should not be argued. The schools with MCV4 requirements often have had a recent outbreak and are considered high risk. In that case, protect yourself!

Traveling Around the World

Spring Break is around the corner, which means many of my patients will be traveling to various areas of the world for vacation or mission trips. Many of these areas require vaccines prior to travel, so plan ahead and schedule a travel appointment with your doctor (if they do them) or at a travel clinic. Many insurance companies do not cover the cost of travel medicine visits, medications, or vaccines, but they are important and are a small cost in comparison to getting sick when on your trip.

Vaccinate when you can!

Immunization records will need to be reviewed, so if you are going to a travel clinic outside your medical home (doctor’s office) be sure to bring the records with you.

Vaccines work best when they are given in advance, so do not schedule the pre-travel visit the week you leave! Some vaccines that are recommended are easily available at your primary medical office but others are not commonly given so might require a trip to a local health department, large medical center, or travel clinic.

Check with your insurance company to see if the cost of the vaccine will be covered or not so you can include your cost in your travel budget if needed.

Watch the food and drinks

Many diseases are spread through eating and drinking contaminated foods. If in doubt: do not eat! Cooked foods are generally safer. Any fresh fruits or vegetables should be washed in clean water before eating. Be sure all dairy products are pasteurized. Avoid street vendors, undercooked foods (especially eggs, meats, and fish), salads and salsas made from fresh ingredients, unpeeled fruits, and wild game. Drink bottled water or water that has been boiled, filtered or treated in a way that is known to be reliable. Use the same water to brush teeth. Do not use ice unless you know it is from safe water because freezing does not kill the germs that cause illness.

As always, wash hands often, use sanitizer as needed when washing is not available, and avoid touching the “T” zone of your face (eyes, nose, and mouth). Do not share utensils or foods. Avoid people who are obviously ill.

Medicines for travelers Diarrhea

  • Many companies that schedule international travel recommend bringing antibiotics for prevention or treatment of diarrhea.
  • This is not recommended by many experts due to the rise of “superbugs” with the use of unnecessary antibiotics.
  • In general, the use of antibiotic prophylaxis is recommended only for high-risk travelers, and then only for short periods.
  • The average duration of illness when untreated will be 4 to 5 days, with the worst of the symptoms usually lasting less than a day.
  • Antibiotics might lead to yeast infections, allergic reactions, or even a chronic carrier state (colonization) or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • Antibiotics should be reserved for the treatment of more serious illnesses that include fever and significant associated symptoms such as severe abdominal pain, bloody stools, cramping, and vomiting.
  • Bismuth subsalicylate is available over the counter for adults and can reduce traveler’s diarrhea rates by approximately 65% if taken four times daily. Risks of bismuth products are that it can turn the tongue and stool black and they contain salicylate. Salicylate carries a theoretical risk of Reye syndrome in children, so should be avoided in children.
  • Probiotics and prebiotics have been shown to help prevent and treat diarrheal illnesses safely in most people with intact immune systems.

Mosquitos…

Many diseases are spread by mosquitos. Contact with mosquitoes can be reduced by using mosquito netting and screens (preferably insecticide-treated nets), using an effective insecticide spray in living and sleeping areas during evening and nighttime hours, and wearing clothes that cover most of the body. Everyone at risk for mosquito bites should apply mosquito repellant. See below for prevention medication options.

Non-Infectious Risks

Vehicle safety risks vary around the world. Know local travel options and risks. Only use authorized forms of public transportation. For general information, see this International Road Safety page.
  • Learn local laws prior to travelling.
  • Be sure to talk with your teens about drug and alcohol safety prior to travel. Many countries have laws that vary significantly from the United States, and some teens will be tempted to take advantage of the legal nature of a drug or alcohol.
  • Remind everyone to stay in groups and to not venture out alone.
  • Dress appropriately for the area. Some clothing common in the United States is inappropriate in other parts of the world. Americans are also at risk of getting robbed, so do not wear things that will make others presume you are a good target.
  • Wear sunscreen! It doesn’t matter if you’re on the beach or on the slopes, you need to wear sunscreen every time you’re outside. Don’t ruin a vacation with a sunburn.
  • For more safety tips, see this helpful brochure.

Keep records

It is a great idea to take pictures of everyone each morning in case someone gets separated from the group. Not only will you have a current picture for authorities to see what they look like, but you will also know what they were wearing at the time they were lost.

Take pictures of your passport, vaccine record, medicines, and other important items to use if the originals are lost. Store the images so you have access to them from any computer in addition to your phone in case your phone is lost.

Have everyone, including young children, carry a form of identification that includes emergency contact information.

Create a medical history form that includes the following information for every member of your family that is travelling. Save a copy so you can easily find it on any computer in case of emergency.

  • your name, address, and phone number
  • emergency contact name(s) and phone number(s)
  • immunization record
  • your doctor’s name, address, and office and emergency phone numbers
  • the name, address, and phone number of your health insurance carrier, including your policy number
  • a list of any known health problems or recent illnesses
  • a list of current medications and supplements you are taking and pharmacy name and phone number
  • a list of allergies to medications, food, insects, and animals
  • a prescription for glasses or contact lenses

Specific Diseases to Prevent

Risks of illness vary depending on where you will be travelling and what time of year it will be. I refer to the CDC’s travel pages and the Yellow Book for information on recommendations. Some of the most common issues to address are discussed below in alphabetical order.

Dengue Fever

Dengue is a mosquito-borne viral illness. It is seen in parts of the Caribbean, Central and South America, Western Pacific Islands, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Africa. There is no vaccine or specific treatment. Mosquito bite prevention measures are important.

Hepatitis

Infants should begin vaccinations against Hepatitis B starting at birth and against Hepatitis A starting at a year of age. Be sure these vaccines are up to date. Hepatitis A is spread through food and water, so be sure to follow the above precautions even if vaccinated.

Malaria

Malaria transmission occurs in large areas of Africa, Latin America, parts of the Caribbean, Asia (including South Asia, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East), Eastern Europe, and the South Pacific. Depending on the level of risk (location, time of year, availability of air conditioning, etc) no specific interventions, mosquito avoidance measures only, or mosquito avoidance measures plus prescription medication for prophylaxis might be recommended.

Prevention medications might be recommended, depending on when and where you will be travelling. The medicines must begin before travel starts, continue during the duration of the travel, and continue once you return home. There is a lot of resistance to various drugs, so area resistance patterns will need to be evaluated before choosing a medication.

  • Atovaquone-proguanil should begin 1–2 days before travel, daily during travel, and 7 days after leaving the areas. Atovaquone-proguanil is well tolerated, and side effects are rare but include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and headache. Atovaquone-proguanil is not recommended for prophylaxis in children weighing <5 kg (11 lb).
  • Mefloquine prophylaxis should begin at least 2 weeks before travel. It should be continued once a week, on the same day of the week, during travel and for 4 weeks upon return. Mefloquine has been associated with rare but serious adverse reactions (such as psychoses or seizures) at prophylactic doses but are more frequent with the higher doses used for treatment. It should be used with caution in people with psychiatric disturbances or a history of depression.
  • Primaquine should be taken 1–2 days before travel, daily during travel, and daily for 7 days after leaving the areas. The most common side effect is gastrointestinal upset if primaquine is taken on an empty stomach. This problem is minimized if primaquine is taken with food. In G6PD-deficient people, primaquine can cause hemolysis that can be fatal. Before primaquine is used, G6PD deficiency MUST be ruled out by laboratory testing.
  • Doxycycline prophylaxis should begin 1–2 days before travel to malarious areas. It should be continued once a day, at the same time each day, during travel in malarious areas and daily for 4 weeks after the traveler leaves such areas. Doxycycline can cause photosensitivity so sun protection is required.  It also is associated with an increased frequency of vaginal yeast infections. Gastrointestinal side effects (nausea or vomiting) may be minimized by taking the drug with a meal and it should be swallowed with a large amount of fluid and should not be taken before bed. Doxycycline is not used in children under 8 years. Vaccination with the oral typhoid vaccine should be delayed for 24 hours after taking a dose of doxycycline.
  • Chloroquine phosphate or hydroxychloroquine sulfate can be used for prevention of malaria only in destinations where chloroquine resistance is not present. Prophylaxis should begin 1–2 weeks before travel to malarious areas. It should be continued by taking the drug once a week during travel and for 4 weeks after a traveler leaves these areas. Side effects include gastrointestinal disturbance, headache, dizziness, blurred vision, insomnia, and itching, but generally these effects do not require that the drug be discontinued.

Measles

We routinely give the first vaccine against measles (MMR or MMRV) at 12-15 months of age, but the MMR can be given to infants at least 6 months of age if they are considered high risk due to travel or outbreaks. Under 6 months of age, an infant is considered protected from his mother’s antibodies. These antibodies leave the baby between 6 and 12 months. The antibodies prevent the vaccine from properly working, which is why we generally start the vaccine after the first birthday.

Any vaccine dose given before the first birthday does not count toward the two doses required after the first birthday, but might help protect against exposure if the immunity from the mother is waning. It is safe for a child to get extra doses of the vaccine if needed for travel between 6 and 12 months.

Meningitis

  • Meningococcal disease can refer to any illness that is caused by the type of bacteria called Neisseria meningitidis. Within this family, there are several serotypes, such as A, B, C, W, X, and Y. This bacteria causes serious illness and often death, even in the United States. In the US there is a vaccine against meningitis types A, C, W, and Y recommended at 11 and 16 years of age but can be given as young as 9 months of age. MenACWY-CRM is newly approved for children 2 months and older.
  • There is a vaccine for meningitis B prevention recommended for high risks groups in the US but is not specifically recommended for travel.
  • Meningitis vaccines should be given at least 7-10 days prior to potential exposure.
  • Travellers to the meningitis belt in Africa or the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia are considered high risk and should be vaccinated. Serogroup A predominates in the meningitis belt, although serogroups C, X, and W are also found. There is no vaccine against meningitis X, but if one gets the standard one that protects against ACWY, they will be protected against the majority of exposures. The vaccine is available for children 9 months and older in my office and a newer vaccine is approved for 2 months and up. Boosters for people travelling to these areas are recommended every 5 years.

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis (TB) occurs worldwide, but travelers who go to areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and parts of Central and South America are at greatest risk. Travelers should avoid exposure to TB in crowded and enclosed environments and avoid eating or drinking unpasteurized dairy products. The vaccine against TB (bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine) is given at birth in most developing countries but has variable effectiveness and is not routinely recommended for use in the United States.

Those who receive BCG vaccination must still follow all recommended TB infection control precautions and participate in post-travel testing for TB exposure.

It is recommended to test for exposure in healthy appearing people after travel. It is possible to have a positive test but no symptoms. This is called latent disease. One can remain in this stage for decades without any symptoms. If TB remains untreated in the body, it may activate at any time. Typically this happens when the body’s immune system is compromised, as with old age or another illness.

Appropriately treating the TB before it causes active disease is beneficial for the long term.

 

Typhoid

Typhoid fever is caused by a bacteria found in contaminated food and water. It is common in most parts of the world except in industrialized regions (United States, Canada, western Europe, Australia, and Japan) so travelers to the developing world should consider taking precautions. There are two vaccines to prevent typhoid.

  • Children over 2 years of age can be vaccinated with the injectable form. It must be given at least 2 weeks prior to travel and lasts 2 years.
  • The oral vaccine for children over 5 years and adults is given in 4 doses over a week’s time and should be completed at least a week prior to travel. The oral vaccine lasts 5 years.
  • Neither vaccine is 100 % effective so even immunized people must be careful what they eat and drink in areas of risk.

Yellow Fever

Yellow fever is another mosquito-borne infection that is found in sub-Saharan Africa and tropical South America. There is no treatment for the illness, but there is a vaccine to help prevent infection. Some areas of the world require vaccination against yellow fever prior to admittance. Yellow fever vaccine is recommended for people over 9 months who are traveling to or living in areas with risk for YFV transmission in South America and Africa.

Zika Virus

At this time it is advised that pregnant women and women who might become pregnant avoid areas in which the zika virus is found. For up to date travel advisories due to this virus, see the CDC’s Zika page.