All incoming seventh-graders in North Carolina would have to be vaccinated for meningitis and other meningococcal diseases beginning in 2015, under a new rule proposed by the state’s public health commission.
Also, beginning in 2020, incoming high school seniors would be required to have a booster for the vaccine.
Meningococcal disease takes several forms, including inflammation of the fluid in the brain and spinal cord, and infection of the blood or of the lungs. It can be spread through the air via droplets from sneezing or coughing, by physical contact with someone who is infected, such as kissing, or via sharing things such as drinking glasses.
There are between 800 and 1,200 cases in the United States annually, said Andrea Held of the immunization branch of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. A ninth-grade student at East Chapel Hill High School died in February of what was believed to be a meningococcal disease.
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While it’s relatively rare, the disease’s onset is rapid, and the consequences can be serious, Held said. Nearly a fifth of all people who contract it suffer major long-term effects such as brain damage, hearing loss, seizures and loss of limbs, fingers and toes, she said. Between 10 and 15 percent die.
The changes to the state’s vaccination policy have one last hurdle to clear: the state Rules Review Commission, which will review them June 18 to ensure they’re consistent with normal rule-making procedures, said Kirsti Clifford, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
They would align North Carolina’s policy with recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the national Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
Vaccination is believed to be more than 90 percent effective in the first year, but the immunity it creates falls over time, hence the required booster for high school-age students, said Held.
Dr. John W. Rusher, president of the N.C. Pediatric Society, said his group had been seeking the vaccination rule for years, because the vaccine is the most effective weapon for fighting the disease.
“Most folks who have been in practice for a few years have seen its effects, and it can just be devastating, so if we can protect against it, that’s obviously a good thing,” Rusher said. “I’d love to be able to say one day that we won’t see any more meningococcal disease, because it is so bad, and causes so many problems.”