UK scientists want to know whether it’s worth vaccinating teens against a certain type of bacteria that causes meningitis called Neisseria meningitidis, seen above.
Image: James Volk (CDC)

Scientists in the UK are looking to recruit thousands of teens (presumably with attitude) to help them settle a debate over whether vaccines for a certain type of meningitis should be in wider use.

The nationally funded study, coined the Teenagers against Meningitis, or TEAM, trial, will corral 24,000 teenagers from ages 16 to 18 living in 14 towns and cities across the country. They’ll be randomly divided into three groups. One group will receive a placebo shot at first, while the other two will get one of two currently licensed vaccines tailored to prevent meningitis B. The vaccine groups would get a second dose six months later.

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Via throat swabs taken at the beginning at the trial and at the one year mark, the researchers intend to see just how protected the vaccinated teens actually are against meningitis B, compared to the control group. Afterward, the unvaccinated teens would get the real shots as well (because they deserve protection, too). The researchers will also try to suss out whether the program is providing herd immunity to the surrounding unvaccinated community.

“Participants will not only get a vaccine that reduces their risk of meningitis but also help us understand if we can prevent the bug being carried and potentially spread to others,” said study investigator Matthew Snape, a researcher at the University of Oxford, one of the many research sites taking part in the trial, in a statement.

Meningitis is simply what doctors call an inflammation of the meninges, the protective layers that coat our brain and spinal cord. Its symptoms include a high fever, headache, and rash, though it can progress into full-blown sepsis and death.

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Lots of things cause meningitis, but the most common bacterial culprit is called Neisseria meningitidis. There are 13 broad types, or serogroups, of N. meningitidis known to exist, five of which can cause human disease (A, B, C, W, and Y). The bacteria likes to nest in our throats, and as many as one in every 10 people carry it without any problem. The trouble begins when it finds its way elsewhere in the body. It can be spread through close, prolonged contact with infected saliva or snot, a category that includes making out.

A vaccine that covers all non-B types of meningitis has been around since the 1970s. But it was only after the advent of a better non-B vaccine in 2005 that countries like the US strongly recommended the shot for children ages 11 to 12, along with a booster shot at 16.

The first meningitis B vaccine debuted in 2015, but doctors in the US were reluctant to endorse it as a routine shot, citing concerns about its safety and that it might not be worth vaccinating the general population, given the disease’s rarity. The UK did add it to its routine vaccination schedule for children under the age of 12 months, though it similarly chose to not recommend it widely for anyone else at the time.

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While cases of bacterial meningitis are rare, with only 350 cases diagnosed in the US in 2015, it remains an incredibly scary threat. Even with prompt medical treatment, 10 to 15 percent of patients die from it, while 11 to 19 percent develop long-term complications like deafness or brain damage. And after infants, people from the ages of 16 to 24 are most at risk of contracting it. In recent months, at least two outbreaks of bacterial meningitis have hit colleges in the US, both caused by serogroup B, prompting large vaccination drives.

The TEAM trial is expected to start this April, with recruitment ongoing for the next 18 months.

[University of Oxford]

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