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TPR Lifeline: Meningitis Vaccine Protects Against Killer Bacterium

World Health Organization
Vaccines to protect against meningitis can prevent devastating side effects from the disease or even death.

Rates of meningitis are at historic lows in the United States. Still, adolescents and college students are at particular risk for the potentially deadly brain infection. In today’s TPR Lifeline, Bioscience-Medicine reporter Wendy Rigby talks to the Medical Director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, Dr. Junda Woo, about vaccines available for protection against this killer.


Rigby: Dr. Woo, what is meningitis and what are its effects on people who get infected?

Woo: So it’s a bacterium that we normally carry in the backs of our noses and throats. But some people, we don’t know why, get very sick from it when it gets into your brain or spine or blood. About one in ten people who do get sick from it die. And about one in five people who survive can have deafness, brain damage, amputations. It’s rare which is good. But the effects are so serious that we want people to know about it.

Who is at risk?

The largest number of people getting meningitis are actually babies. And they are, unfortunately, too young to immunize. We also see a peak in adolescents and young adults and then a peak in the oldest people.

Credit Wendy Rigby / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Junda Woo, MD, is the Medical Director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District.


Who should be vaccinated and when?

So we recommend vaccinating everybody around ages 11 to 12 and a booster at age 16. That’s for the standard vaccination that covers four subgroups of meningitis. For people who are about to go into college, we do recommend an additional one that covers the fifth subgroup. That’s a soft recommendation by the CDC. It’s an optional rather than a “should.” And that’s for meningitis B. That would be at age 16 to 18.

If someone out there is listening and they have a college student getting ready to go away and they’re saying “Optional. Should I do it?” how would you advise them? What are the risks? Is it because they live in a dorm in close quarters?

Living in a dorm in close quarters would be one way to get the infection. Sharing utensils, being with someone who has had it and is coughing, sharing cigarettes…any of those things can transmit it. So we do worry more about people in close quarters. That’s why you see also the military vaccinates its recruits. Whether people should or shouldn’t get it, I’d say, you know, the CDC says it’s still looking into it because it’s a new vaccine. The meningitis B one came out in 2015. So it’s really a conversation for you, your child, your doctor to have together.

So how do people contract this illness?

So you can contract it by being around somebody who has it and is coughing or sneezing. Close household contact. It’s actually not as contagious as some other infections like measles. But because it’s so serious and so devastating for some people who catch it, it’s worth getting the vaccine just to make sure you’re not one of the one in ten who dies when they catch it.

So is it airborne? Is it saliva? How do you get it into your system?

Respiratory and throat secretions.

Are these vaccines covered by insurance and where do you get them?

The standard meningitis vaccine that cover four subgroups is absolutely covered. The meningitis B may or may not be covered. There’s a new website the CDC is recommending called www.vaccinefinder.org. And you can go and plug in your address and it will tell you places near you that offer the vaccine and it will also help you figure out what vaccines you’re eligible for.

That’s valuable. What do you want people to know about this disease you think they may not know?

Well I think the most important thing is if you get it, it progresses very quickly. So that’s why if you do get it, you’re more likely than with some other infections to die. It’s not uncommon to hear about people dying within 24 to 48 hours of getting sick. So the symptoms would be headache, neck stiffness, fever. And then if it’s in your bloodstream, purple blotches on your skin. If you notice anything like that, get to the emergency room right away.

Dr. Junda Woo, Medical Director, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, thanks for the information.

Thank you.


Wendy Rigby is a San Antonio native who has worked as a journalist for more than 25 years. She spent two decades at KENS-TV covering health and medical news. Now, she brings her considerable background, experience and passion to Texas Public Radio.