Neisseria meningitidis, often called meningococcus, is one of a number of bacteria that can cause meningitis and is primarily responsible for causing endemic bacterial meningitis. Interestingly though, for 1 in 10 people, known as carriers, this bacteria lives in the back of the nose and throat, hiding in saliva, causing no signs or symptoms of disease. Unknowingly, carriers can pass the infection along without suffering any ill effects. Unfortunately, those without immunity who are exposed to meningococcus can go on to develop meningitis, or meningococcal sepsis, experience terrible discomfort and sometimes die.
- meningitidis, is classified as a gram-negative diplococcus, which in essence is two spherical cells that form a pair. These two cells are what meningococcal vaccines arm your body to fight. These two cells are what doctors are trying to ward off when they suggest vaccinating your children.
Of course, no vaccine comes without risks. Although many of us have no side effects, some people feel dizzy after receiving a meningitis vaccine. However, just as some of us react differently to bacteria, a few of us—very few—react differently to the injection. In rare cases, vaccination can cause serious and lasting harm. Doctors call this an “adverse reaction.”
So how do you balance the need for a meningitis vaccine in this instance with the risk of exposure to the infection and the risk of an adverse reaction? In 1986 the Federal government started the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (“NVICP”). This no-fault program has paid out “over $3.9 billion (combined)” to people who have suffered injuries related to a wide variety of vaccines—from tetanus boosters to chicken pox. And it covers meningococcal vaccines, too.
What are the symptoms of meningitis?
“Meningitis,” according to the CDC, “is an inflammation (swelling) of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.” Classic symptoms include:
- Stiff neck
- Feeling disoriented
- Sensitivity to light
- Sudden headaches
It’s important to remember too that a person with bacterial meningitis may not have all or even any of the classic symptoms above. Doctors diagnose meningitis by extracting and testing fluid from around your spine through a lumbar puncture and blood tests.
How dangerous is meningococcal meningitis?
The illness is highly contagious and life-threatening. Although we have ways to treat meningitis, it can still result in death, even in developed countries. Even with appropriate antibiotic therapy the mortality rate for people with meningococcal disease (which includes meningitis) is as high as 15%. Survivors may lose their ability to hear or suffer brain damage, among other things.
Is N. Meningitidis the only thing that causes meningitis?
Sadly, no. There are other bacteria, like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae, that can cause bacterial meningitis.
Furthermore, not all meningitis is bacterial. Viruses, like measles or influenza, can cause meningitis—albeit an “often less severe” form of the illness. Finally, rare versions of meningitis can result from infections by parasites, fungi, or amoebas. Although meningitis can result from all sorts of causes, this article focuses on N. meningitidis and the meningococcal vaccines.
What kinds of meningococcal vaccines are there?
There are two main kinds: meningococcal conjugate vaccines and serogroup B vaccines. Meningococcal conjugate vaccines help develop your immunity to four types of N. meningitidis—serogroups A, C, W, and Y. Serogroup B vaccines do this for just one type. Although the CDC suggests the meningococcal conjugate vaccine for more groups of people, it generally does not discourage either vaccine, with some exceptions.
Both of these kinds have competing brands. Menveo® and Menactra® are meningococcal conjugate vaccines; Bexsero® and Trumenba® are serogroup B vaccines. (Information about each vaccine’s effectiveness can be found here.) Regardless of which vaccine you receive, it is covered under the NVICP.
Who should/shouldn’t get the vaccine?
Whether or not to vaccinate is a personal decision and something you should discuss with your doctor. However, as a general rule, it is standard for teens and preteens to receive the meningococcal conjugate vaccine. The meningococcal conjugate vaccine is also recommended for some adults. Serogroup B vaccines tend to be optional, but there are people for whom they may be vital or important.
Often people whose doctors recommend early or adult vaccination are also people whose doctors suggest the serogroup B vaccines as well. Such people can include college students, people travelling to the “meningitis belt” in Africa, pilgrims on Hajj, people without spleens, people who are HIV positive, and others. Again, ask your healthcare practitioner whether a meningococcal vaccine is right for you.
Unless you have an allergy to the meningococcal vaccines, the CDC does not generally discourage vaccination, but it does suggest people who are currently sick, or who are pregnant or breastfeeding, should speak to their doctor.
Ultimately, what vaccines you receive is a question for you and your doctor to decide, as the answer depends on your unique circumstances. No website can know your medical history. Only your physician can tailor his or her recommendations to you specifically.
What are some ordinary side effects?
Most people have only mild side effects when they get vaccinated. In the case of meningococcal conjugate vaccines, you may develop a fever. You may also have pain or redness around your shoulder muscle where the vaccine was administered. These should clear up in a day or two.
The serogroup B vaccine sports a longer list of side effects, in addition to those mentioned for the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, including fever or chills, headaches, diarrhea, and muscle and joint pain. (A full list can be found at the link in the paragraph above.) These side effects should last a week at most.
What about more serious problems?
As noted earlier, not everyone reacts well to the meningococcal vaccines, and not every side effect is mild. On the rare occasions that people suffer more severe injury, they can seek compensation via the NVICP. This program maintains a vaccine injury table. For the meningococcal vaccines, these include Fainting, Allergic Reactions, and shoulder injury related to vaccine administration (‘SIRVA”).
Fainting goes by a variety of technical names, such as vasovagal response, syncope, and syncopal episode, to name a few. Like the other injuries which follow, fainting can happen as a result of receiving other covered vaccines. Often, people who fall from fainting suffer additional injuries. To qualify as a table injury, the syncope needs to happen within an hour of vaccination.
Serious allergic reactions, also called anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock can be dangerous, since one of its symptoms is throat, tongue, or windpipe swelling. (For other symptoms, see the link above, or this article) An allergic reaction within four hours of vaccination is a table injury.
The final table injury is shoulder injury related to vaccine administration (“SIRVA”), which oftentimes results from misplaced vaccine injections. People with SIRVA experience shoulder pain and can have trouble moving their arm as easily as before. SIRVA must appear within forty-eight hours of vaccination to meet the table’s requirements.
What if my injury isn’t on the table?
Even if you don’t have a table injury, you may still pursue compensation under the NVICP. The vaccine injury table is just a list of relatively frequent vaccine injuries. (While table injuries are not common among people who receive vaccines, they are common among people who suffer injuries because of vaccines. Because of this, people bringing cases involving table injuries have to prove less.) People with non-table injuries can file claims, too. They simply have to prove a little more. For more information, see the “What are ‘Table Injuries’ and “Non-table injuries?’” section of this article.
So what next?
If you believe you or a loved one has suffered a vaccine injury, you may be eligible to receive compensation from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. To make your case, you need allies who can use their extensive knowledge in vaccination injury claims to help you. For a true team of legal professionals, you should consider the vaccine injury legal team at Sands Anderson.