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Infant Meningitis Vaccinations a Must

POSTED: October 31, 2011, 12:00 am

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Evergrace Davis knows that her son Terrence is lucky. He is a meningitis survivor. He beat a disease that kills one in every seven afflicted.

At just 20 months old, Terrance awoke with a cough and fever. Like most moms, Evergrace thought he was coming down with the flu. But when her son's symptoms didn't improve, Evergrace took Terrance to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis. He remained in the hospital recovering for two weeks.

Fortunately, Terrence suffered no permanent disabilities from his bout with meningitis, an atypical outcome for those who contract this relatively rare but devastating disease. Of those who survive the disease, many endure life-long health issues such as limb amputations, facial disfigurement, paralysis, seizures, blindness, loss of hearing or brain damage.

Evergrace knows now that bacterial meningitis is a vaccine-preventable disease. But what may come as a surprise to her and other parents is that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) appears poised to deny many parents access to new life-saving meningitis immunizations for infants.

Currently, vaccinations can prevent meningitis and there are federally approved vaccines for Americans ages 2 through 55. In fact, many states require school children to be vaccinated, as do most colleges.

But even though CDC estimates reveal that the disease incidence is three to seven times higher in infants under 1 year old than in any other age group, it wasn't until this year that a federally approved vaccine for infants 2 and younger became available. Too late to protect young Terrence, but not too late to prevent future tragedies.

However, unlike with prescription medication, vaccines that are declared safe and effective must additionally be "recommended" by the CDC before they are routinely administered by pediatricians and covered by insurers and federal health care programs for the poor and underserved.

You would think vaccinating infants against a deadly disease would be a top priority for the CDC, our nation's premier public health organization. After all, never before has CDC balked at recommending a safe and effective vaccine. But CDC and its "expert vaccine panel" signaled at a meeting in late October that it planned not to recommend meningitis vaccines for infants.

Rightly, patient advocates, consumer groups and infectious disease experts are worried that by not recommending infant meningitis vaccines, CDC will be denying many parents the ability to choose whether or not to vaccinate their infant against meningitis.

Most importantly, a routine recommendation would ensure predominately low-income and minority children would have the cost of their vaccines covered by the Federal Vaccines for Children Program. Without a routine recommendation, only affluent parents will be able to afford vaccinating their children against meningitis, a reality that would further highlight a dangerous health equality problem facing our nation. The CDC putting new vaccines out of the reach of needy families is certainly not a sensible remedy.

Every parent deserves the right to protect their children from deadly diseases, no matter how uncommon they may be. In these tough economic times, the last thing the CDC should be doing is throwing up additional hurdles for underserved families to get the life-saving, preventative treatment they need.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.

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