Meningitis C vaccination is available as the new meningococcal C conjugate vaccine (MenC).
The UK regime is for each infant to receive a dose of MenC at 2, 3 and 4 months of age. There has also been a campaign to immunise older children. Any young people who have not had the vaccine should have MenC inoculation prior to starting at college or university.
The vaccine is made from the sugar coat of the germs (meningococcal bacteria) which can cause a type of meningitis. The sugar (polysaccharide) is "glued" to (conjugated with) a protein, and when injected it can lead to the development of immunity to Meningitis C from 2 months of age.
The idea is to fool the body's defence system into thinking it is under attack by Meningitis C, and to produce defence mechanisms (antibodies) which will fight off Meningitis C if it is encountered in the future.
The vaccine is given, by injection, into the upper arm, thigh or buttock, and became part of the routine immunisation schedule in UK from Autumn 1999. It is given to infants at 2, 3 and 4 months of age.
There was a catching up exercise for the older children. Adults and children over one year of age only need one injection.
Meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia are serious and often fatal conditions, caused by the meningococcus germ. It is commonest in infants under one year old and a large number catch it between one and five, but the next highest risk age group is 15 to 19. Although more cases occur in the under one age group, the highest mortality from Meningitis C disease is in the teenage years.
In the UK groups B and group C are the commonest types of meningitis. Group C accounts for about 40% of cases in the UK. There is at present no vaccine available against group B meningococcus. Thus for the UK the logical immunisation to use is that against the C strain of meningococcus.
It is true that the amount that a disease occurs (the incidence) will reduce once a certain percentage of the population has been inoculated. This is called "herd immunity". It is possible for some individuals to depend on this and avoid having the vaccine themselves. If, however, everybody had that attitude, the diseases would remain widespread.
Anything we take into our body can have side effects. Medicines, and in this case Meningitis C vaccine, are no exception, but vaccines are among the safest medicines.
The commonest side effects are:
- redness and swelling at the site of the injection
- mild fever
The local reaction, with redness and swelling, is commoner in school aged children (26-29%), while it is less common (2-4%) in infants and toddlers.
Irritability is noted in up to 50% of infants, less than 12 months, who receive the vaccine, and 19% of toddlers. In older children the equivalent is probably headache, from which between 10 and 14% suffer.
Up to 5% of children under 17 months who receive the vaccine are likely to get some degree of fever. The number of older children who become feverish is slightly less.
In 1999 Meningitis C immunisation was added to the standard battery offered in the UK. The result has been that Meningitis C has virtually disappeared in the under 25 age group.