We would probably have to go back to FDR’s “New Deal” of the 1930’s to find more “alphabet soup” than we encounter with our current list of recommended childhood vaccines (And if you don’t recognize that reference, some American history review is a good idea.) We have DPT, IOV, HIB, HepA and Hep B, and the list goes on. One of the non-acronym vaccines is what is generally referred to as, “the meningitis vaccine.” And this is different in one important way from all the other vaccines, and this is what makes the name itself inaccurate and confusing.
Think of it this way: almost every vaccine prevents infection from a particular germ, either viral or bacterial. But it just happens in most cases, not all, that that particular organism causes a specific and usually well-recognized infection. Obvious cases are “D,” diphtheria, two different “P’s,” polio and pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis A, and so on. “MMR” is a package deal and very good one, measles, mumps and rubella (German measles). Most parents and laymen in general will think of the vaccine preventing a particular disease, which is correct, but fundamentally the vaccine targets the specific germ.
Now things get a little more complicated when we get to the HIB (hemophilus type B) and Prevnar (brand name for the vaccine for the germ pneumococcus). These very important vaccines prevent infections from bacteria which have the potential to cause bloodstream infection, pneumonia, and meningitis as well as some other potentially devastating infections mostly in children. The names are not so familiar because over the last couple of decades the vaccines have profoundly reduced infection caused by these bad actors. So with these we are dealing with a vaccine for germs which cause a multitude of location of infection, not just one well-recognized one.
So, now what about the so-called meningitis vaccine? Well, the vaccine that carries that name is the meningococcal vaccine, a shot that prevents infection from the most common types of the very dangerous bacterium meningococcus. And indeed, this germ is the most common cause of meningitis in older children, adolescents, and adults. However, the name is problematic for two reasons. One is that there are many, many other causes for meningitis, including the two bacteria mentioned above, many other bacteria, a myriad of viruses, and lots of other less common types of infection as well. So it is really inaccurate to call it the meningitis vaccine.
And there is another reason the name is misleading. The germ meningococcus does not cause only meningitis. It causes a very dangerous, often fatal type of bloodstream infection which can be even more devastating than the meningitis which may or may not be present. This condition, meningococcemia, is one of the most dreaded of the infectious illnesses encountered in office, ER, and hospital settings, and is notorious for affecting healthy, young people, progressing from an apparent mild flu-like illness with catastrophic deterioration in a number of hours.
So to sum up: the vaccine is better referred to as the meningococcal vaccine, both becuase there are so very many other causes of meningitis and because that bug causes more than just meningitis. But whatever one chooses to call it, we should be sure all our kids should have this vaccine. It’s acurrently given at a later age, eleven, in youngsters who do not have specified high-risk conditions than most immunizations. And there is a booster about five years later. We don’t want any youngsters left unprotected from this very scary germ.