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!