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Meningitis - Meningitis Vaccines

Immunization Basics

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Updated June 19, 2014

Meningitis is a general name for an infection of meninges -- the fluid and membranes that surround the spinal cord and brain. Several different bacteria and viruses can infect this area of the body and only some of them can be prevented with vaccines.

Classic symptoms of meningitis include headache, stiff neck, high fever, vomiting, photophobia (discomfort when looking at bright light), confusion and irritability.

For many parents, it may be one of first things parents think of when their child develop a fever and headache or neck pain.

What Is the Vaccine for Meningitis?

Because a number of bacteria and viruses can cause meningitis, that is actually a much more complicated question than it initially appears.

There are several meningitis vaccines that are a part of the childhood immunization schedule for different kinds of bacterial meningitis. Since the virus that causes mumps can cause meningitis too, the MMR vaccine does protect children from one cause of viral meningitis.

There are many other types of viral meningitis for which vaccines haven't yet been developed. Fortunately, viral meningitis is usually not as serious an infection as bacterial meningitis.

Meningitis Vaccines

In addition to protecting children from other types of childhood infections, the following vaccines are considered meningitis vaccines:

  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine
  • Meningococcal (Menactra and Menveo) which prevent many Neisseria meningitidis infections
  • Pneumococcal (Prevnar) which prevents many Streptococcus pneumoniae infections

Hib Vaccine

In addition to bacterial meningitis, the Hib vaccine protects young children against pneumonia, bacteremia (a blood infection), and epiglottitis and some other infections that are caused by the Haemophilus influenzae type b bacteria.

Before routine use of the Hib vaccine in 1988, about 20,000 children had Hib infections each year, including 12,000 cases of bacterial meningitis. Complications, which affected about 30% of the kids, included deafness, seizures, blindness and mental retardation. And about 5% of children who had bacterial meningitis that was caused by the Hib bacteria died.

Children now routinely start getting the Hib vaccine beginning when they are two months old, ending with a booster dose when they are 12 to 15 months old.

Meningococcal Vaccine

The meningococcal vaccine protects children against several strains of Neisseria meningitidis bacteria, which can cause meningitis and meningococcemia, a life-threatening bloodstream infection.

Menomune was the first meningococcal vaccine available in the United States, but it has been largely replaced by the newer versions of the vaccine - Menactra and Menveo. It is recommended that all children should receive Menactra when they are 11 or 12 years old, with a booster dose when they are 16 to 18 years old. Other children who should get Menactra include teens who haven't had a dose yet (they should get a catch-up dose as soon as possible) and younger children who are considered to be at high risk for meningococcal infections. These high-risk children include those who have had their spleen removed, have a damaged spleen, or who have other immune system problems.

Pneumococcal Vaccine

Although it is often thought of as an ear infection vaccine, it is important to remember that the latest pneumococcal vaccine (Prevnar) also protects children against bacterial meningitis, blood infections and pneumonia.

Prevnar protects children against 13 strains of the Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria and is given to infants as a four-dose series starting at two months.

Certain high-risk older children should also get the Pneumovax pneumococcal vaccine, including those with immune system problems, heart problems and asthma.

Bacterial Meningitis

Why are there so many different vaccines for bacterial meningitis?

It is because there are different bacteria and different strains of bacteria that can cause meningitis.

And even with these meningitis vaccines that can prevent the most common causes of bacterial meningitis, they won't prevent other less common causes, such as when it is caused by the E. coli or Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Otherwise healthy children aren't at great risk for meningitis from these bacteria though, but children who have recently had neurosurgery or who have other medical problems can be.



Sources:

Mandell, Bennett, & Dolin: Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases, 6th ed.

Plotkin: Vaccines, 5th ed.

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