CDC action needed to help protect Californians from meningitis outbreaks

Irene Mendes
Irene Mendes

A decision being made this week at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will have a direct impact on the health and well-being of people across California.

The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is meeting to decide on recommendations for who should receive the vaccination for Serogroup B meningococcal disease – commonly known as meningitis B. This is the strain of meningitis that has been linked to several recent outbreaks on college campuses here in California.

Meningitis is typically contracted in close living quarters, making students living on college campuses especially vulnerable to infection.

While infants, adolescents and young adults between the ages of 16 to 21 are most likely to contract the disease, anyone without the meningitis vaccine is at-risk for infection.

Despite initial symptoms reminiscent of the flu, meningitis can turn fatal within hours. Even when promptly treated, the CDC estimates the fatality rate for bacterial meningitis is between 10 and 15 percent, and as many as 19 percent of survivors suffer permanent complications such as deafness, loss of limbs, permanent injury to the nervous system, and brain damage.

Because of the threat of meningitis B, the Food and Drug Administration has fast-tracked the approval of vaccinations for the disease.

With the vaccinations now ready, the CDC has to decide who should receive it.

The CDC recommendations will have direct consequences for the lives of people across our state. Many health insurance plans will cover only the cost of vaccinating individuals based on the CDC guidelines.

Californians experienced the devastating consequences of meningitis firsthand when outbreaks at the Universities of California, San Diego and Santa Barbara killed two students and infected four others. In one case, the infection caused so much circulation damage that a student was forced to have both feet amputated.

Unfortunately, there also have been other cases that have taken a toll in other settings – homes and communities across the country.

Future tragedies will be especially difficult to accept when the tools to prevent them are now out there. It does not make sense to limit who can receive lifesaving vaccines.

The CDC should issue broad guidelines so that the most people possible are able to receive the vaccine. This is the only way to protect our family members, friends and neighbors from what is a devastating illness.

As school nurses, our first priority is to ensure the health and safety of our students. Yet, far too often we are forced to stand idly by as preventable diseases take a devastating toll on students and members of their families.

When it comes to meningitis and other infectious diseases, no treatment is more effective than vaccination.

In order to prevent the threat of meningitis in our communities, the National Association of School Nurses urges the CDC to adopt the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ recommendations to ensure as many people as possible have access to the vaccine.

Irene Mendes is a member of the National Association of School Nurses.