What is the meningococcus?
The meningococcus is a bacterium (germ) that can cause meningitis and septicaemia (blood infection). It can also cause other infections – for example, pneumonia, conjunctivitis (eye infection) and myocarditis (inflammation of the heart). Some of these infections are very serious and can be fatal if not treated quickly. There are different groups (strains or types) of meningococcal bacteria:
- Groups B and C are the common strains in the UK. Most cases of bacterial meningitis in the UK are caused by group B. Most of the rest are caused by group C (although the number of group C cases has fallen greatly due to immunisation introduced in 1999).
- Group A is rare in the UK, but more common in certain parts of the world – in particular, in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Saudi Arabia.
- Groups Y, W135, 29E and Z are rare in the UK but group W135 has been the cause of recent outbreaks in certain parts of the world.
Infection with the meningococcus can affect anyone, but those most at risk are: children aged under five years (especially babies under a year), teenagers and young adults under the age of 25.
The meningitis C vaccine
A vaccine to protect against the group C meningococcus (MenC vaccine) was launched in 1999. This vaccine protects against group C only and not against group A or B meningococcus. (See separate leaflet called ‘Meningococcal Immunisation’ for details of other vaccines against other groups of meningitis, which are used for travellers to at-risk countries.) The MenC vaccine is thought to give lifelong immunity, so booster doses later in life are not needed.
Who should be immunised?
Babies are given the MenC vaccine as part of the routine immunisation programme. Three doses (injections) of vaccine are needed for full protection. These are normally given at ages 3 and 4 months and between 12 and 13 months. The first two doses are usually given at the same time as the routine DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine (as a separate injection). (DTaP/IPV/Hib stands for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough)/polio/Haemophilus influenzae type b.) The third dose is a combined injection with the Hib vaccine (Hib/MenC).
Three doses are needed to be given to make sure your child develops a really good immune response to protect them against this disease.
Older children, teenagers, and young adults under the age of 25 were offered immunisation in a catch-up programme after the immunisation was introduced in 1999. Most are now immunised. However, if you are under 25 and have not been immunised, see your practice nurse to get immunised. Just one injection of vaccine is needed for those over the age of one year. Once all people under the age of 25 are immunised, only the routine immunisations for new babies will need to continue.
People who do not have a spleen or whose spleen does not work properly also need to receive a meningitis vaccine.
Close contacts of people with meningitis or septicaemia caused by group C meningococcus may be offered the vaccine if they have not been previously immunised. They are also likely to be given a short course of antibiotics.
Are there any side-effects to the vaccine?
Most people have no side-effects. Sometimes a mild fever develops for a short time. Some babies cry more and become irritable for a short time after the injection. Occasionally, they may have vomiting or diarrhoea. Slight swelling, pain and redness at the injection site may occur. Headache and muscle aches for a short time can occur in some older children.
None of the above side-effects is serious, and they soon settle. If necessary, you can give paracetamol or ibuprofen to children to ease pain and fever following immunisation. Serious reactions are rare.
Who should not be immunised?
- Immunisation should be postponed if a child has a high fever or serious infection. Minor infections such as coughs, colds and snuffles are no reason to postpone immunisation.
- The vaccine should not be given if there has been a severe reaction to a previous dose of vaccine (which is extremely rare). Also, it should not be given if a person is known to be allergic to any of the ingredients in the vaccine.
The vaccine is safe if you are breast-feeding.
Are you still at risk of meningitis after the immunisation?
Yes. However, this vaccine has greatly reduced the number of cases of meningitis and septicaemia since it was introduced in 1999.
Other groups of meningococcus, and other bacteria can still cause meningitis.
You should get medical help immediately if you suspect that your child, or someone you know, has meningitis or septicaemia. The earlier the treatment of meningitis or septicaemia, the better the chance of recovery and preventing complications or death. See separate leaflets called ‘Meningitis and Septicaemia’ and ‘Meningitis – Symptom Checklist’ for more details about the symptoms of meningitis and septicaemia.
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