A New Vaccine for Meningitis, But Limited Stores

There is a new vaccine available to protect against the bacterial disease commonly known as spinal meningitis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending it for adolescents and college-bound students. Some college health centers are scrambling to find the vaccine.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Now in personal health news, as students start a new school year, vaccines are on the to-do list. We have two stories, first a new meningitis vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending it for adolescents and college-bound students, but NPR's Allison Aubrey reports some college health centers are scrambling to find enough of the vaccine.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Just before summer, the Lokanda Sleepaway Camp in Glen Spey, New York, sent out a notice urging campers to get the new meningitis vaccine. Parent Andrea Weissback(ph), who was preparing to send her nine-year-old son, had never heard of it, so she called her pediatrician's office.

Ms. ANDREA WEISSBACK (Parent): They were recommending it. They said that meningitis was this awful bacterial virus, and I asked what the side effects were, and they basically said there really were none. And so that's why I was, like, `Well, then sign me up.'

AUBREY: Lots of other parents made the same decision. Even though their children weren't going off to college, doctors told them that the group living conditions at camp raised their kids' chances of contracting the rare disease. Physician James Turner oversees student health at the University of Virginia and has treated several students with meningitis.

Dr. JAMES TURNER (University of Virginia): They can walk into a student health clinic at 1:00 in the afternoon, and they look like they have the flu: mild headache, body aches and a low-grade fever. And if you're lucky and you're an astute clinician and you're suspicious of meningococcal meningitis, if you send them over to the hospital, about 5 or 6 in the evening, they can be in shock on a ventilator clinging to life.

AUBREY: There are about 125 cases of this type of meningitis each year, and about 15 percent are fatal. William Schaffner is an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, and he helped advise the CDC on the recent recommendations for the new vaccine.

Dr. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER (Vanderbilt University): The trick was not whether we were going to recommend it, because everyone on the committee was assured of its safety and effectiveness. The question was: To whom should it be targeted?

AUBREY: Vaccine manufacturer Sanofi pasteur told policy-makers that production would be limited in the early years. So eventually it's recommended that all children be vaccinated at age 11. The group that's at the top of the list for vaccination now is college freshmen living in dorms. Their close quarters, coupled with a lifestyle of erratic sleep and eating habits, puts them at higher risk. Erin Frankcrone(ph), who moved into her freshman dorm last week, heard about the vaccine over the summer.

Ms. ERIN FRANKCRONE (Freshman): My doctor's office had it at the beginning of summer after May graduation, and it was just one shot. It was really easy.

AUBREY: But students who didn't get it at home will have to wait. When freshmen arrived at American University last week, the student health center was out of the vaccine. Dan Bruey is the director.

Mr. DAN BRUEY (American University Student Health Director): We actually exhausted our supply last week and expect a new supply this week.

AUBREY: But how much vaccine is still available is unclear. Sanofi pasteur spokesman Len Lavenda says the company's producing the vaccine on the schedule they'd planned; it's just that demand is much higher than expected.

Mr. LEN LAVENDA (Sanofi pasteur): We're not quite sure how much longer we will experience these limitations in supply because this is the first year that the product has been licensed and the first year it's been recommended. So we're monitoring the situation very closely.

AUBREY: Schools that put in their orders early have plenty of supplies, but William Schaffner says students at other schools will need to be patient.

Dr. SCHAFFNER: I'm actually recommending that they just sit tight, take a number, as it were, and as soon as the vaccine comes in--and it will keep coming in during the year--take advantage of that and get it then.

AUBREY: There is one other option. Supplies of an older, rarely used vaccine are available. It offers a much shorter immunity, and unlike the new one, it doesn't kill the bug in carriers, people who harbor and spread the disease but never get sick. Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

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