North Carolina's public health rulemaking body is closing in on requiring seventh-graders to be vaccinated against potentially deadly meningitis and related diseases starting next summer.
The North Carolina Commission on Public Health recently approved requiring vaccinations against meningitis and other meningococcal diseases by seventh grade, as well as mandating an additional booster for 12th graders beginning in July 2020.
The requirement must be finalized next month before it can take effect for students entering the seventh grade after July 1, 2015, the state Department of Health and Human Services said.
Though North Carolina only averages 16 cases a year, meningococcal disease can result in death and exorbitant medical costs, the state agency said. Half of North Carolina teens are not vaccinated against meningococcal diseases, which are caused by a type of bacteria. The best known illness from this family is meningitis, an infection of the brain and spinal cord. The bacteria can also cause bloodstream infections.
"Vaccines are the most effective tool to prevent meningococcal disease, including meningitis, and other diseases for which teens are at risk," said Dr. John Rusher, president of the North Carolina Pediatric Society, which backed the requirement.
"Bacterial meningitis is most common in people between the ages of 15 and 21, yet only half of North Carolina teens are currently vaccinated against it. Immunizing middle-schoolers and 12th graders against meningococcal disease is a huge step in protecting North Carolina students both now and later, as they enter college and young adulthood."
Meningococcus bacteria are spread through the exchange of lung and throat fluids like spit, for example by kissing or just living in close quarters, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease can be treated with antibiotics that prevent severe symptoms and reduce the spread of infection from person to person if doctors are alerted and act quickly. But they can also be prevented with vaccines.
North Carolina children are now required to get all but six of the nearly two dozen vaccines recommended by national public health experts. State officials decided against moving this year to require all six additional vaccines because it would burden schools, parents and insurers. Meningococcal vaccine was considered critical because of the risk of death and high treatment costs resulting from the diseases.
"The cost of this vaccine far outweighs the cost and high likelihood of death if infected," state health officials wrote in considering the pros and cons. By avoiding a single disease death per year as well as treating children who suffer hearing loss and other harms, about $10 million would be saved over six years with the vaccine requirement, a state planning document said.