Meningitis vaccine — Risks and benefits?

Originally Published: September 17, 1999 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 7, 2013
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My mother wants me to get the new meningitis vaccine. What are the side effects and is it worth the risk?


Dear Reader,

In some situations it's pretty clear when it's necessary to get vaccinated, for example when traveling to a country with a known prevalence of yellow fever, or in the 1950s when the United States began fighting the polio epidemic. But with other vaccinations, such as the meningitis vaccine, it's less clear. In these cases the decision of whether to be vaccinated is left to the individual.

With any vaccine, it's a good idea to consider a few variables. What is your risk-factor for contracting the disease? What is your likely exposure or risk of infection? What are the potential side effects of the vaccine? And perhaps most essentially: do the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any potential risks or side-effects? Not everyone may need to be vaccinated against meningitis, and the potential side effects of the vaccine can be significant enough to make an informed decision about this vaccination very important.

Meningitis is the infection and inflammation of the tissue that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (meninges), and it can be caused by either a virus or a bacteria. Symptoms of the disease include headache, high fever, a stiff neck, vomiting or nausea, confusion, seizures, and sensitivity to light. Viral meningitis is the most common and least severe, often fought off by the body's immune system without treatment. Bacterial meningitis is less prevalent but more serious, it is potentially fatal, can cause considerable damage in those who survive it, and can sometimes resist treatment.

Because of the seriousness of the effects of bacterial meningitis, vaccines have been developed, and those at high risk encouraged to receive vaccination. Anyone who lives in close quarters with many others, such as college students living in residence halls or military recruits, have a higher risk of infection and are often encouraged to get vaccinated.

There are currently two types of vaccines are available in the States. They are Menomune (also referred to as MPSV4) and Menactra (MCV4). Both types guard against four strands of meningococcal disease, including 2 of the 3 types most common in the United States, and one that causes epidemics in Africa. The vaccines do no prevent all types of the disease, but are nintey percent effective in preventing the four strands they're designed to guard against.

Any vaccine carries with it a risk of side effects or allergic reactions. About half the people who receive either of the meningitis vaccines experience mild side-effects, like redness or soreness where the shot was given that usually lasts for a day or two. A small percentage of people who receive the vaccine develop a fever. Signs of more serious allergic reactions include difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, hives, paleness, weakness, a fast heart beat or dizziness. These reactions are rare, and if they do occur, they usually happen within a few minutes to a few hours of the shot. If you notice any of these, call a doctor right away.

If a person has Guillain-Barré Syndrome (a rare but serious nervous system disorder ), or has had it in the past, they should consult with their doctor before getting vaccinated with Menactra. Also, anyone who has a life-threatening allergy to any vaccine, or anyone who is moderately to severely ill at the time the shot is scheduled should not get vaccinated. And as with many medications and vaccinations, pregnant women should use caution and consult with a doctor before receiving Menactra or Menumune, as effects of the vaccines on pregnancy have not been extensively studied.

You can learn more about the meningococcal vaccines through the CDC vaccine fact sheet. The CDC Advisory Committee on Immunication Practices also has recommendations for the prevention and control of meningococcal disease. If you have specific questions about your medical history and risk for contracting meningitis, it would be a good idea to speak with your health care provider. Students at Columbia (Morningside campus) can make an appointment through Open Communicator or by calling 212-854-7426. Students on the Medical Center campus can call 212-305-3400 to make an appointment with the Student Health Service.

If you live in close quarters with many people where you may come into contact with saliva or other fluids, if you tend to share food and drinks often with friends, or if have a condition that might compromise your immune system's ability to ward off disease, you may want to talk with your health care provider about getting the vaccine. On the other hand, if you are at relatively low-risk for meningitis, you may decide the potential side-effects of the vaccine may not be worth the protection it offers. The decision is up to you, good luck considering your options!