Parents of teenagers ready for college have been asking me some pointed questions about the vaccine to prevent meningitis. Let me take my best shot and tell you something about this important vaccine.

First, the vaccine protects against one very serious type of bacteria called meningococcus. These bacteria can cause a life-threatening blood infection or result in meningitis. (Meningitis is an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord.)

Meningococcus spreads through close or direct contact from the nose and throat. This could happen during kissing, sharing silverware or glasses or through a cough. Studies indicate that teens and young adults between 15 and 21 are at increased risk for getting this infection. This is especially true for those living in close quarters with other teens, such as a college dormitory.

Sadly, if an infection due to meningococcus occurs, 1 in 10 who get it will die even with antibiotics. Others can experience terrible complications that can include brain damage or loss of an arm or leg.

A vaccine that became available a few years ago can prevent 4 of the 5 most common strains of meningococcus. It can prevent up to three quarters of all cases, reducing significantly your child’s risk of infection.

A new vaccine is available that can protect against the fifth major type of this disease. Physicians do not recommend it routinely, though parents can request it.

Side effects of meningococcal vaccines are mild, since these vaccines do not contain the real germ. They only contains parts of the germ that will allow the body to fight off the bacteria. The most common side include some redness or soreness at the injection site and occasionally a low-grade fever. Allergic reactions are extremely rare.

Hopefully tips like these will stick with you when it’s time to get your teen immunized with a meningococcal vaccine.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the Robert Larner, M.D. College of Medicine at the University of Vermont.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and MyNBC 5, or visit the “First with Kids” video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.

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