CDC considering meningitis vaccine for infants

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Federal health officials, trying to determine whether to recommend that young children be vaccinated for the rare but often deadly bacterial meningitis, heard Wednesday from parents both for and against the vaccine.

The public meeting in New Hampshire was the first of four the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is holding around the country to gather information that might shape the decision-making process, said Glen Nowak of the CDC's immunization and respiratory diseases division.

"We have not done this before for this kind of issue, so this is going to be a learning experience for CDC," he said.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved a meningitis vaccine for babies as young as 9 months. Doctors can order it, but insurance companies are unlikely to cover the cost unless the CDC recommends it, as the federal agency does for children ages 11-18.

Children under age 5 account for about 250 of the 1,000 cases of meningitis in the United States each year, and about 30 of those children die, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC's meningitis and vaccine preventable diseases office, said. A small percentage of the survivors experience significant medical problems, including seizures, hearing loss and amputated limbs.

Messonnier estimated that a vaccine would prevent about 75 of the 250 cases in young children. That creates a difficult balance between a vaccine's cost compared to its effectiveness, she said, adding, "It's hard to have a safe, effective vaccine available and not want to use it."

The vaccine's cost hasn't been determined since several versions are likely to be approved. But one of the versions now used for teens costs about $100.

The bacteria is spread by coughing, sneezing and kissing, and most cases occur in previously healthy children and young adults. Those who get the disease develop symptoms quickly and can die in only a couple of days.

Frankie Milley's son, Ryan, died just 14 hours after becoming ill in 1998 at age 18. Milley, who runs a national support group for families affected by meningitis, said she fought to get the vaccine recommended for adolescents and is committed to doing the same for younger children.

"This disease is deadly, it's debilitating, and it's preventable," she said. "I believe if infants and children had a voice and a choice, they would choose to be protected."

"It's just as important as the teen vaccine," said Yecenia Manzano, a California woman who also attended Wednesday's meeting.

Manzano's daughter, Bella Estrada, was just 3-months-old when she died of meningitis. Attempts to stop the disease by amputating the baby's arms and legs were unsuccessful, and the infection destroyed her face, her mother said.

Other parents raised concerns about the safety of vaccines in general. Deborah Poggi of Concord described the fevers and out-of-control behavior her son exhibited after getting vaccinations as a child and said he still, at age 30, has symptoms she attributes to that experience.

"Vaccines ... certainly are not as benign as I feel the presenters made them out to be," she said.

But Messonnier said the issue is whether it makes sense to recommend all babies be vaccinated given that cases of bacterial meningitis — an infection that can cause swelling of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord — are at historic lows. Messonnier said experts don't know why the numbers have dropped, or if they will stay that low.

"Maybe we're just lucky, and around the corner is another increase," she said at a daylong conference hosted by the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services.

Another consideration is how many immunizations doctors are willing to give or parents are willing to allow, she said. There is a fear that parents would react to an addition by deciding to skip other vaccinations, Messonnier said. The current schedule includes vaccines for 16 diseases, up from seven in 1985.

"If we squeeze one more thing into that immunization schedule, are providers or parents going to balk?" she said.

The other three CDC hearings are scheduled for July 12 in Seattle, July 21 in Chicago and July 25 in Denver.

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