Meningitis B is rare but a very lethal infection. A few months ago a few students at Princeton and the University of California-Santa Barbara were infected by it and it was then realized that there was no vaccine against Meningitis B available in the U.S.
Out of the 13 students who were infected, one died and one suffered double amputation. The news made headlines and attention was focused on the lack of a vaccine for this disease. Since then, two brand name vaccines have become available but both of them come with very high price tags – over $300. It is projected that the two vaccines, Bexsero from GlaxoSmithKline and Trumenba from Pfizer could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.
Since the disease is still relatively rare and also because the vaccines are so expensive, the CDC recommends that the vaccine should be given to people aged 16-24 years on an individual basis. This is a different approach from that used for other illnesses such as measles or human papillomavirus vaccines or for other variants of Meningitis including A, C, W, and Y which require vaccination. Experts believe that the risk of Meningitis B is not large enough to justify routine vaccination.
Meningitis B cannot be transmitted from person to person. It is only transmitted through close physical contact such as kissing or through sharing of utensils. If caught early, the infection can be treated with antibiotics. The infection is caused by B serogroup of the meningococcal infection and can appear in slow, self-limited outbreaks on college campuses.
While the CDC recommends vaccination on an individual basis, the pharmaceutical companies marketing the vaccines have spent significant money on advertising campaigns that urge parents to get their children vaccinated. Both GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer have spent millions in paid advertisements and social media campaigns. However, the CDC stands by its recommendation on the grounds that fewer than 300 cases occur in the U.S. per year. Medical experts believe the number may be even less – around 50 or 60 cases a year.
There are other factors to consider as well. It is still unknown how long the immunity of these two vaccines lasts. There are also doubts that it covers all strains of the infection. The cost is obviously a major deterrent. All these raise the question as to whether there is a need for this vaccination and if there are any lower-priced options in development.