Dear VaccineSmarts,

My youngest son had his meningitis vaccine when he was 12. Now I am being told that he needs another before he goes away to college. My oldest child attended college about 10 years ago. She only needed one shot. Did something change?

Lisa, Kemah

Dear Lisa,

Your question comes at an excellent time of year. Children are required to have the vaccine before entering seventh grade and many colleges and universities require vaccination for incoming freshman.

The meningitis vaccine protects against a bacteria known as meningococcus. The bacteria gets its name from its propensity to cause meningitis. Meningitis is the inflammation of the meninges, which are the linings that cover the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of meningitis include seizures, a headache that may worsen when looking at bright light and a stiff neck due to the inflammation of the meninges running down the spine.

Meningococcus can infect other parts of the body such as joints, lungs, middle ear and blood. While meningitis accounts for nearly half of meningococcal disease, blood infections account for another 40 percent. Meningitis and blood infections are frightening. Even with early treatment, cases can rapidly progress to death within 24 to 48 hours.
Meningococcal disease is more likely to strike children under the age of five than teens and young adults.

In 2005, the CDC first recommended the routine use of the meningococcal vaccine for individuals 11-18 years of age. This is around the time your daughter attended college. The expectation at that time was that the vaccine would protect for about 10 years. In such a case, individuals vaccinated at 11 would have been protected through the early college years. Sadly, it turned out that the vaccine only protects most people for three to five years. So the recommendation changed to include a booster dose after the 16th birthday. Those vaccinated for the first time after their 16th birthday do not need a booster dose as they should be protected through the first couple years of college. They may choose to have a booster dose if they so desire.

So yes, things did change. Your youngest does need two doses of the vaccine for the best protection. An important thing for you and your son to know is that the vaccine protects against several of the more common causes of meningitis, but not all. If he has the symptoms of meningitis or feels very ill he should still seek medical attention even though he has been vaccinated.

The good news is that there are two new vaccines against another common cause of meningococcal disease. We will discuss the new vaccines in a future article.

Dr. Richard Rupp is a pediatrician and professor and Bridget Hawkins, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of anesthesiology. They are both members of UTMB’s Sealy Center for Vaccine Development. This column is meant to provide educational information about vaccines. Visit our blog at or like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter @VaccineSmarts.