Meningitis is a serious condition, but it is not caused by one bug – bacteria, viruses and even fungi can lead to infection.
‘We are more likely to encounter different strains of these germs at different times in our life, which is why specific vaccinations are recommended depending on your age or situation,’ says Claire Wright, evidence and policy manager at the Meningitis Research Foundation.
Our generational guide explains who would benefit from having the meningitis jab.
Meningitis in babies and young children
‘Around half of the 3,200 cases of meningitis that occur each year affect babies or children under five because their immune system is not fully developed,’ says Claire Donovan, head of information and research at Meningitis Now.
There are numerous vaccinations given to babies to protect against bacteria that can cause meningitis. Infants will have a jab against Hib (as part of a combined vaccine) at eight, 12 and 16 weeks. A jab against pneumococcal infection is given at eight weeks, 16 weeks and one year. They are vaccinated against MenB at eight weeks, with boosters at 16 weeks and one year. They will also have a jab against MenC at one year.
There is some controversy surrounding the MenB jab. Research into the vaccine’s efficacy in September 2016 found it had halved the average number of MenB cases in vaccine-eligible age groups compared with four years previously.
As a result, some experts and parents think the vaccine, called Bexsero, should be given on the NHS to all children under five, not just those born after the vaccine was introduced in September 2015 – one petition even proposed vaccinating children up to the age of 11.
However, the cost to the NHS would huge; one estimate puts the total cost for immunising all under-fives in England and Wales against Men B at £189 million. If this was to include all under-11s, the equivalent cost would be £441 million.
You can decide to vaccinate your child privately, but the number of cases of MenB is in decline and immunising children over the age of five may not be effective. According to figures from Public Health England, 24% of cases of MenB between 2014/15 were in babies aged one and 33% were in children aged one to five, but only 12% of cases were in children aged five to 14.
Meningitis in teenagers
Teens and young adults are the group with the second highest risk of contracting meningitis. As such, it’s strongly recommended they receive the Men ACWY vaccination that protects against four main strains of the disease they are at risk of.
Right now, only 33% of eligible young people are vaccinated which does concern experts. Because teens are also the group most likely to carry meningococcal bacteria responsible for many cases of meningitis – thanks to typical teenage activities such as kissing and sharing drinks – vaccinating your teen may also help protect other members of the family.
Meningitis in adults
Most adults over the age of 25 don’t need additional protection against meningitis. ‘The main exception is if you are travelling to an area where vaccination is recommended, such as sub-Saharan Africa. It’s compulsory for pilgrims attending Hajj or Umrah. Without proof of vaccination you will not be allowed into Saudi Arabia,’ says Donovan. Travel vaccination against meningitis is not available on the NHS, but other forms of travel vaccination are available.
Meningitis in the elderly
The main issue in this group is exposure to pneumococcal bacteria, which can cause meningitis as well as other life-threatening conditions. ‘The over-55s are at higher risk of infection with meningitis, as the immune system starts to deteriorate. Vaccination is available on the NHS for the over-65s,’ says Donovan. The PPV jab protects against 23 strains of pneumococcal bacteria. It’s particularly recommended for those with chronic respiratory diseases and heart disease.
While it may not be as exciting as a trip to a theme park, arranging a day out to get your whole family vaccinated could help put everyone’s mind at ease.
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