A vaccine against the cause of meningitis B was effective in preventing the disease, which has caused high death rates, particularly in young people, in some parts of the United States, according to a new study in the journal Meningitis and Meningococcal B.
As many as 5 percent of people born in the U.S. between 1900 and 2010 may have been exposed to the disease, yet since its introduction in the United States in the 1960s, the strain has caused 1,000 new infections and approximately 18 deaths every year, according to research presented at the meeting of the American Society for Microbiology earlier this week.
The researchers, whose study appears to be the first to focus solely on the vaccination’s effects against Omicron, a serogroup of the meningococcal bacteria, tested 1,000 males between the ages of 8 and 24 who had been vaccinated against the more common strain, meningococcus A. The meningococcal strain typically causes the most severe forms of meningitis, however, and this strain was identified in 15 percent of the group’s cases in the study. These cases were of varying severity, ranging from mild inflammation to meningitis and peritonitis — a potentially fatal case of infection in the inner lining of the abdomen — among others.
A specific type of meningococcal bacteria (MenB) that causes the disease can only be spread through saliva, oral-skin contact, or eye contact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means kissing someone or sharing a drink or towel, even though those things can cause bacterial infections, are unlikely to spread the illness. Still, the human body is susceptible to the infection when contaminated with the MenB bacteria, which are also spread when a person — or their parent or child — suffers a major blow like having their tonsils removed.
But Pfizer’s MenB vaccine — which is already approved for use in several countries, including the United States, the largest of which was Italy — has proven effective against a specific strain of Omicron, making it “an exciting path toward a vaccine against all forms of bacterial meningitis,” the study’s lead author, Adam J. Chen, said in a news release. That’s because most children who contract the disease are never diagnosed with Omicron or MenB.
As the vaccination’s effectiveness against Omicron was so strong, the investigators decided to screen a larger group of boys and girls ages 18 to 24 for the meningococcal infection, according to the press release. They still found an average of 16 of those 1,000 meningococcal B vaccinations were linked to their subsequent infections, but the vaccine prevented 99 percent of those cases.
Without the vaccine, Omicron infections account for fewer than 15 percent of all meningococcal meningitis cases, but the infection is associated with some of the highest rates of severe complications. But the best cure for the disease, according to a statement from Pfizer, is still hospitalization. “This study adds further evidence of the potential of MenB immunization to reduce mortality from a specific strain of meningococcal disease,” Dr. Bob O’Neill, the lead investigator of a trial currently testing the vaccine’s effects against a different strain of meningococcal bacteria, said in the release.
“We still have a lot of work to do in exploring the mechanisms by which the vaccine is controlling infections,” he added. “But, based on this study, we believe there is potential for this vaccine to help stop meningococcal disease in its tracks.”
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Between 2.5 million and 5 million people worldwide are infected with meningitis a year, with 400,000 to 500,000 of them dying, according to the World Health Organization