Cincinnati Children's Blog

Ridding the world of meningitis

February 29, 2012

Even in a world of modern antibiotics, meningitis maintains a stubborn foothold.

This bacterial infection of membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord continues to kill or permanently disable an alarming number of infants, children and adults. Effective vaccination programs against the two most common causes of meningitis mean that today it primarily affects low and middle income countries.

It could be, however, that the disease’s remaining days on this planet may finally be numbered. A team of physicians, including Dr. Steven Black of Cincinnati Children’s, writes in the Feb. 29 Science Translational Medicine that new vaccines now make it possible to rid the world of meningococcal meningitis and its five major strains, or serotypes.

“There is the potential to prevent disease due to all of the common meningococcal serotypes with a resultant reduction in mortality and morbidity globally,’’ states the article, which is based in part on a discussion forum at a recent global conference in Sienna, Italy.

Most recently, vaccines against the last remaining major cause of meningitis, the meningococcus, have become available. This point is important because the risk of death and disability with this disease remains high despite even the newest antibiotics.

The writers point out that, defeating meningitis will require political will, public education and awareness on a large scale. They use in their article the example of a concerted effort in the United Kingdom 20 years ago, when a major vaccine campaign led to the “virtual eradication” of meningococcal C disease there.

Interesting to note is that, among the article’s review of medicine’s efforts to develop newer, safer and more effective vaccines against meningitis, there is a caution against going too far:

“The group agreed that complete eradication of the meningococcus, even if possible, may not be desirable because of the potential negative impact on disease from other species and from microbiota in general. That is, total elimination of the meningococcus from the environment might open this ecological niche to another human pathogen.”

Dr. Black is a researcher in the Center for Global Child Health at Cincinnati Children’s and an adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. His focus is vaccine safety and the use of computerized data to evaluate vaccines in the developed and developing world.

The article can be found at: www.ScienceTranslationalMedicine.org.

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