Many parents, teens unaware of an 'optional' but valuable vaccine

Should older children and teenagers receive a vaccination against a rare but deadly infectious disease? An effective vaccine has been available for 20 years against meningococcal infection, but the vaccine is not routinely recommended by public health agencies and parents are often unaware of it.

A nationally prominent vaccine expert proposes that physicians and public health officials make a stronger effort to inform parents and patients about the vaccine and its potential benefits. He adds that health insurance companies should consider paying for such vaccines when parents and patients request them.

Given high health care costs and limited public resources, implementing mass vaccination against meningococcal disease may not be cost-effective public policy, but a parent's individual decision about the vaccine is a different issue, says Paul A. Offit, M.D., chief of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Offit is the lead author of a commentary in the Dec. 11 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Although the meningococcal vaccine may be an inefficient use of public health resources, the decision to receive the vaccine could save lives and prevent the devastating effects of meningococcal infection," writes Dr. Offit. Dr. Offit's co-author is Georges Peter, M.D., of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Rhode Island Hospital, Providence, R.I.

Invasive meningococcal infection strikes an estimated 2,200 to 3,000 U.S. patients annually. Some 10 percent of those patients die, sometimes within hours of the first signs of illness, from meningitis (inflammation of the brain's lining) or sepsis (bloodstream infection). Survivors may suffer hearing loss, seizures, mental retardation or limb amputation.

The contagious disease is most likely to strike infants under the age of one--for whom the current vaccine is, unfortunately, not effective. The

Contact: John Ascenzi
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

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