BERLIN — Maryland will be joining 15 other states in mandatory seventh grade meningitis vaccinations starting next year.
The state already requires vaccinations for all college students in Maryland, but middle schoolers are especially susceptible to the meningococcal disease, according to Dr. Neal Halsey, infectious disease pediatrician, John Hopkins professor and director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety.
“Adolescence is a time of increased risk. It has been well documented in the United States as well as other countries,” he said. “So it is important to protect adolescents.”
Making vaccinations mandatory in seventh grade starting in September 2014 is in keeping with Maryland’s approach to fighting the disease so far, said Greg Reed, program manager for the Maryland Center for Immunization.
“Maryland was the very first state in the country, back in 2000, to pass a college vaccination requirement that if someone lived in on-campus housing at any of Maryland’s colleges or universities, you had to get vaccinated against meningococcal disease or sign a waiver. Maryland has been at the forefront of this, looking at this issue, going all the way back to 2000,” he said.
Meningococcal disease is definitely a disease worth looking at, said Halsey.
“The disease can be devastating. I’ve cared for a number of children who have died or who have lost limbs,” he said. “It causes an overwhelming and rapidly progressing infection throughout the bloodstream.”
According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 10 to 14 percent of meningococcal disease cases are fatal with another 11 to 19 percent of survivors suffering permanent hearing loss, brain injury, loss of limbs or other serious effects. The disease is also able to kill within hours.
“It’s not an infection where you can assume that we have antibiotics that are effective and if somebody gets sick we can treat them and they’ll get better. This infection moves very fast and there isn’t time,” said Halsey.
Because the disease shuts off the blood supply to extremities, Halsey noted it results in a loss of limb far too often.
“I’ve had one child who lost both legs at the knee and both hands, one just below the elbow and one at the elbow,” he said.
Despite the potential consequences of meningitis and the meningococcal disease, Halsey said that a lot of people outside the medical field barely understand it. The parents of adolescents who contract the disease tend to be baffled.
“Almost to a person they say, ‘we had no idea this could happen to our child.’ And so it is underappreciated and there are misunderstandings about the ability to easily treat bacterial infections,” he said. “This one is not easy to treat. It’s hard.”
Because of the difficulty of effective treatment, vaccination is the best option, said both Halsey and Reed. The cost for the mandatory program should be covered by almost all insurance, furthered Reed, and for some extreme cases low-cost or no-cost vaccinations will be available.
Making any kind of medical treatment mandatory always runs the risk of upsetting some parents but so far Reed said there has been no pushback. That could be, at least partially, because the new vaccination rules aren’t yet widely known, he admitted.
“We have not really begun to promote this new requirement yet, so we’re not really sure how much information is out there in the public in regards to this new vaccination requirement because, again, it doesn’t start for another year,” said Reed. “So as a result we haven’t heard anything coming in from parents or anything like that.”