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Meningitis vaccines are scarce, but don't fear

That's the message from health officials, who say college and high school students - the most at risk - will get vaccine.

Published June 3, 2006

Parents, don't flip out: The vaccine for meningitis is in short supply, but the teenagers and young adults most at risk for the disease can still get the shot.

Because the supply of the vaccine preferred by health officials likely won't meet demand for everyone this summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is asking health care providers nationwide to restrict who can receive it for now. That means holding off on vaccinating 11- and 12-year-olds.

The vaccine primarily targets students entering high school and college. Meningococcal meningitis, an infection of the fluid around the spinal cord and brain, can spread among people living in close contact, such as in dormitories.

"The most low-risk group is the group that's being asked to defer the vaccination," centers spokeswoman Lola Russell said. "The more high-risk groups will still be able to get the vaccine."

Meningococcal meningitis affects only about 3,000 people nationwide each year, but kills one-fifth of adolescents who get it, according to a story by the Associated Press in 2005, the year the newest vaccine was approved.

Symptoms typically include high fever, headache and stiff neck.

Local health departments got word in late May of the expected shortage projected by the vaccine's Pennsylvania manufacturer.

In Pinellas, the Health Department's 100 doses are being limited to the highest risk group: students in high school and college.

"We've been able to meet demand," spokeswoman Jeannine Mallory said.

In Hillsborough, where there has been one case of meningitis reported since January, vaccines are available for college students and people traveling to countries where protection against meningitis is recommended. College students can get vaccinated for free, Health Department spokesman Steve Huard said.

Children can be immunized for meningitis at age 11, and it is typically recommended for 11- and 12-year-olds, even though they are not yet in the highest risk groups, because they are still receiving regular checkups, Russell said.

Area pediatricians are able to order the vaccine, health officials said. Parents should call them first and not wait for the back-to-school rush.

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 06:53:20]

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