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University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus

University of Colorado Denver, Newsroom

UC Denver Voices

The importance of vaccinating for meningitis


Has your family had all of its vaccines this year? The meningitis outbreak in Fort Collins this spring, resulting in three deaths, brought this important issue to the forefront for all Coloradans - especially athletes across our state.

For those of us preparing for tryouts, practice and back to school, vaccinations may not be the first thing we think of - but they should be.

Deaths and illnesses caused by meningitis, influenza (the seasonal flu), H1N1 (2009 pandemic flu) and other communicable diseases are preventable with proper vaccinations. Despite widespread availability of these vaccines, only 37 percent of young adults have been fully immunized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Meningitis means infection and inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. It can be viral or bacterial. In childhood, the main bacteria causing meningitis are Hemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), against which all children should have been immunized. In adolescence, Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcus) becomes more important. It is the organism that infected the young athletes, and each year there are small outbreaks like this in Colorado. The vaccine (MCV4) is not usually given to young children.

Yet, the risk of meningococcal meningitis infection increases dramatically during adolescence. That is why the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends one dose of the MCV4 meningitis vaccine for all pre-teens (11 or 12 years old) or, if they did not have it as a pre-teen, teens up to 18 years at the earliest opportunity. This is even more important for athletes who are in close contact with teammates and other competitors.

The meningitis cases reported in June were spread during a hockey game in Fort Collins, and it is suspected that the players contracted the bacteria during post-game handshakes. The disease is spread through air droplets and direct contact with someone who is infected. This includes coughing, kissing, sharing utensils, water bottles-anything an infected person touches with his or her mouth. It is not as infectious as flu, but reasonable precautions are important.

Meningitis spreads quickly. For anyone over the age of 2 years, symptoms of meningitis include high fever, headache and stiff neck. These symptoms can develop over several hours, or they may take one to two days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion and sleepiness. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your doctor right away.

Meningitis and influenza vaccines save lives. During your next doctor's visit, ask if your family has had all the vaccines that are recommended by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. For more information on vaccines, please visit the CDC's Web site at

J. John Cohen, MDCM, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.