Vaccinations have been proven time and time again to prevent disease and improve health outcomes. All around the world, vaccines have been deployed to deal with illnesses as common as the flu and as deadly as Ebola. Meningitis is another disease for which vaccination has become a major priority. The “kissing disease,” at it is sometimes called, has made a number of appearances on college campuses across the United States. While incidence in the U.S. remains quite low, at 0.3-4 cases per 100,000 persons, incidence can be as high as 1 case per 100 persons in the “meningitis belt” of Africa, where epidemics occur with regularity.
|Neisseria meningitidis, the bacterium responsible for meningitis.|
Image from Bioquell.com
Infection with the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, the major cause of meningitis, often goes unnoticed. The bacteria take up residence within the nasal cavity, where they can stay without causing disease in a carrier individual. However, in approximately 1-5% of people exposed to the bacteria, invasive disease occurs, and the bacteria enter the bloodstream, leading to life-threatening disease.
Symptoms of meningitis typically begin almost immediately, just one day after infection, and include flu-like symptoms of fever, headache, and stiffness. Because the bacteria enter the bloodstream, any organ or tissue can become infected and impaired. Despite years of research, mortality rates continue to range from 10-15%, even in developed countries, with rates above 20% in the developing world. Even for those who survive the invasive disease stage, meningitis causes lasting impairments in 19% of patients, with neurological disabilities, seizures, hearing or visual loss, and cognitive impairment being classical manifestations. The rapidity of disease progression, along with the high mortality rate, make meningitis a prime disease target for vaccination.
The first vaccines against meningitis were developed in the 1970s. Unfortunately, these early vaccines lacked the ability to maintain long-lasting immunity against the bacteria. In the late 1990s, alterations were made in the vaccine components, allowing for the elicitation of an immunological memory response that would be effective to protect young children into their adult years and would even help reduce the rates of carriage of the bacteria in the nasal cavity. While this was great news for the prevention of meningitis, challenges still remained. The bacteria that cause disease can belong to any of 6 different serogroups, meaning that immunity to one serogroup will not necessarily provide protection from another. This requires differential targeting of all 6 serogroups to truly prevent disease.
|Image from the Meningitis Vaccine Project|
Researchers have addressed this challenge by producing different vaccines for use in specific parts of the world where each serogroup is problematic. In the meningitis belt of Africa, for example, serogroup A has historically been the cause of epidemics. To wipe out these epidemics, a mass vaccination campaign was begun in 2010; the Meningitis Vaccine Project produced and provided vaccines against N. meningitidis serogroup A for over 217 million people in 17 different countries. Thanks to these vaccines, epidemics linked to the serogroup A bacteria have been eliminated.
Unfortunately, when one serogroup is removed, a niche opens up for another. Just last month, the CDC announced that a small epidemic in Liberia had been caused by the N. meningitidis serogroup C bacteria. Nigeria and Niger have also reported outbreaks of this serogroup. Luckily, in the case of Liberia, the country’s response time was extremely rapid. Thanks to the health system improvements made during the Ebola outbreak, Liberia now has a robust case detection and monitoring system. Other countries in the area, however, are not nearly as advanced and could suffer a severe epidemic if serogroup C moves in with force.
Great strides have been made in the fight against meningitis outbreaks. However, the complexity of the group of bacteria responsible for the disease leaves a number of challenges in place that must be overcome. The ideal solution would be the introduction of a vaccine that combined pieces from each bacteria serogroup to produce an immune response in patients that would protect from all six serogroups at the same time. While some quadrivalent vaccines already exist, which provide protection against four of the six serogroups, these vaccines have only been recommended for use in the U.S. for adolescents entering college. Protection from this vaccine only lasts 2-5 years in adults, making it less than ideal for deployment in rural areas where boosting is not a viable option, such as Africa. Advances in vaccine technology may help improve the longevity of protection, making multivalent vaccination a more robust solution to the meningitis problem. Until then, rapid case detection and monitoring capabilities, such as those displayed in Liberia, will be the key to keeping meningitis epidemics in check as they arise. Between vaccine and monitoring advances, meningitis epidemics may one day become a thing of the past.