Class is in Session, it’s time for a Meningitis History Lesson

Unlike many of the other guest-bloggers here, I have not been diagnosed with the actual disease that I am writing about.  With that in mind, I wanted to approach the subject in a way that could serve as more of an informational resource and educational tool than a first-hand account.  For me, a major part of this experience was learning the history of the disease and some of the milestones that have lead to its prevention.  So, without further adieu, it’s history lesson time!

The origins of Meningitis are somewhat shrouded in mystery.  It has been said that the ancient Greek “father of western medicine” Hippocrates was the first to recognize and diagnose the symptoms.  However, the first officially recorded description is credited to the Edinburgh physician Sir Robert Whytt in 1768, referring to tuberculosis meningitis or “dropsy in the brain” as it was known at the time.  Widespread meningococcal infections are somewhat new in the course of our biological history, with the first major outbreak reported in Geneva in 1805 by Swiss physician Gaspard Vieusseux.  In 1806, the first American report of meningococcal disease came from Doctors Elias Mann and Lothario Danielson but it wasn’t until 1887 that Austrian bacteriologist Anton Weichselbaum officially reported the bacterial infection underlying meningitis and defined it.

As meningitis became more widespread around the turn of the 20th century, mortality rates of those infected were generally between 75% and 80%.  The epidemics emerged primarily in Nigeria and Ghana during this period, sweeping across the African continent leaving thousands dead in its wake.  It was not until 1913 that American scientist Simon Flexner developed an antimeningococcal serum that was able to combat the infections and reduce the mortality rate.  Later, in the mid-1940’s, Penicillin was introduced for the first time as a potential treatment and served as the main form of treatment until the first Polysaccharide vaccine was introduced in 1974.  A polysaccharide vaccine is a vaccine that consists of repeating units of mono- or di-saccharides containing bacterial antigens that when introduced to the body produces an immune response against the carried bacterial antigen.  I’m still working on understanding that one!  Unfortunately, the vaccine only protected against 1 of the 5 “serogroups,” (another big word that refers to the group of bacteria containing a common antigen used in the classification of certain types of bacteria.  Antigens are a substance that stimulates the creation of antibodies.)  Finally, in 1978, the United States became the first to license a vaccine to help protect against 4 of the 5 major serogroups of meningococcal bacteria.

Almost done class! Remember, this will all be on the final : )

Following outbreaks among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, the U.S. army began to vaccinate all recruits against meningitis in the early 1980’s.  As awareness and breakthroughs in medicine blossomed over the next decade, the medical community began to realize that children and young adults were actually at an increased risk for contracting the infections.  But it was not until the late 90’s that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) officially began to recommend that colleges and universities educate students and parents about the increased dangers of meningococcal infections in young adults and provide resources for the available vaccines.

Between 2005-10, the FDA officially licensed additional meningococcal vaccines called Meningococcal conjugate vaccines that protect against 4 of the 5 types of bacteria that cause most cases of meningococcal meningitis.  Thus far, these conjugate vaccines are the best protection against infection, and beginning in 2007, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) began recommending routine vaccinations in children during their 11-12-year-old checkup.

As awareness has grown, parents and students alike are becoming educated on the major risk meningococcal infections can pose if the appropriate measures are not taken.  While many of the strains of the infection can be prevented through these vaccines, some strains such as meningococcal disease type B (MnB) do not yet have a licensed vaccine.  This strain is precisely what the Mememto 014 trial is intended to address, and taking part in any way you can to assist in these projects allows you to be part of something much greater than yourself as well as potentially save the lives of future generations.

 

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