What parents need to know about Meningitis B

How you can protect your child from this vaccine preventable disease.

child going down a slide in a park

Created for MissingB.ca

One of the greatest achievements in public health has undoubtedly been the development of vaccines to help prevent and control the spread of deadly diseases. For more than half a century, in Canada as well as in many other parts of the world where there are strong vaccination programs, vaccines have lowered the rates of infectious diseases such as measles and pertussis (whooping cough). In Canada, both polio and smallpox have been eliminated because of vaccines.

Starting as early as birth to two months and continuing through childhood and beyond, children in Canada benefit from a routine vaccination schedule that helps prevent potentially devastating vaccine-preventable diseases.

One such vaccine preventable disease is invasive meningococcal disease (IMD), an infection caused by the bacteria N. meningitidis, which can lead to meningococcal meningitis. Meningococcal meningitis is a rare but serious infection that occurs when meningococcal bacteria infect the outer lining around the brain and spinal cord. IMD can also lead to blood poisoning.

There are several strains of the bacteria that can cause meningococcal disease. Vaccination against one of the disease-causing strains, strain C is included in the routine vaccination schedules across Canada and may be required in some provinces before children can go to school. The other most common bacteria strains are A, B, W-135 and Y.

Meningitis B is a form of IMD that is caused by N. meningitidis strain B bacteria, and from 2013 to 2017 was responsible for the highest number of cases of IMD in Canada. The incidence rate was highest in infants followed by children under 10. And, like the other most common strains, it’s vaccine preventable. But a vaccine against meningitis B is not included in the routine schedule of vaccinations given by health care providers. So even if your child received a meningitis vaccine, they may still be missing coverage for meningitis B.

The bacteria that causes meningitis B (and all other forms of IMD) lives in the nose and throat and is spread from one person to another by contact. It can be spread easily through everyday behaviours, including coughing, sneezing, kissing, sharing drinks and sharing eating utensils While IMD is relatively rare, it can have devastating consequences, with up to 1 in 10 cases of the disease causing death — and often within a day or two after symptoms develop. In addition, up to 1 in 5 of those who survive may suffer complications such as hearing loss, loss of limb and/or mental disabilities.

To complicate matters, early symptoms may be mild and easily confused with the onset of a cold or flu, though they can progress rapidly.

Symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Headache
  • Sudden fever
  • Irritability
  • Drowsiness

Symptoms of blood poisoning include:

  • Cold chills
  • Feeling tired
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Rapid breathing
  • Dark purple rash

Symptoms in babies may be different; a baby may be irritable or inactive, or may vomit, have a rash or diarrhea, among other things. Any symptoms of IMD should be treated as an emergency. Swift and appropriate treatment are the best chances for a good outcome with no long-term consequences.

Understanding that no single vaccine protects against all strains of the bacteria that can cause IMD is important. Talk to your physician or health care provider about vaccination options to help protect your child against all vaccine-preventable strains, including meningitis B.

Vaccines do not provide 100% protection, treat meningococcal disease or prevent its complications.