Five things COVID could learn from Invasive Meningococcal Disease

At first glance, these two vaccine preventable diseases couldn’t seem more different. One is a virus especially brutal to older adults with underlying health problems and holding the entire world in pandemic status. The other is an uncommon but severe and fast-acting bacterial infection with incidence peaks in otherwise healthy infants, young children and adolescents. Even so, here’s what the “Goliath” could learn from “David.”  

  1. Disease awareness is different than disease protection awareness. COVID’s tell-tale signs and symptoms reached social media meme status in weeks, yet there are still huge gaps in what the lay public understands about vaccine protection. We face the same challenge in Invasive Meningococcal Disease (IMD). Parents might know a purplish rash and sensitivity to light are signs of advanced infection, but our research* shows roughly a third of parents think once their child gets one type of meningococcal meningitis vaccine, they’re fully protected against all serogroups. To reinforce protection awareness in parents, in addition to underlying disease awareness, we’re partnering with public health and advocacy for greater impact.
  2. Make it clear that routine immunizations are not prohibited during quarantines and shutdowns. Our IPSOS survey about the pandemic’s impact on meningococcal vaccination found 50% of parents self-reported delaying or cancelling their child’s vaccination appointments. Some pointed to lockdowns, perhaps not understanding that routine immunizations are considered essential and not restricted by stay-at-home measures. A smaller group worried about contracting COVID at vaccination sites. The learning from this? Clear instructions communicated from local authorities, HCPs and patient advocates are critical to avoid outbreaks of other preventable diseases on top of the pandemic.
  3. Which brings us to health care providers. Our experience with meningitis shows when general practitioners or pediatricians recommend routine vaccination, parents listen.  In our latest IPSOS survey, an HCP recommendation ranks as the most influential factor in a parent’s decision to vaccinate – topping even the motivational boost of a local outbreak. For IMD, that’s critical because the burden of disease is highest in infants and young children, with a second peak in older adolescents. For COVID, clear HCP recommendations could also be pivotal once vaccines are approved for young children.
  4. Don’t be lulled by temporary silver linings. Like flu and other respiratory diseases in children, fewer meningitis cases are being reported thanks to preventative measure such as mask wearing and social distance. But it won’t be permanent. Continued immunization vigilance is critical for all vaccine preventable diseases, especially those without herd immunity. Even though IMD outbreaks don’t dominate the news cycle, this recent publication reminds us that they can occur when a hyper-virulent strain enters a vulnerable population and spreads in the community.
  5. Another insight COVID could borrow from IMD patients, researchers and vaccinators? Keeping patient needs in sharp focus drives innovation. For example, polysaccharide capsular conjugation technology worked in MenACWY vaccines but not against the structure of Meningitis B. When that serogroup was causing more disease, we applied a reverse vaccinology solution to bring a four-component MenB vaccine to European patients in 2013. Now this patient-centered commitment to innovation is driving our work on a pentavalent vaccine that we hope will help protect against all 5 meningitis serogroups causing the most severe disease in Europe.  

Parents want to do everything they can to protect their babies, children and teens from meningitis; our job is to help them.  Which is why GSK remains relentless in our pursuit of a meningococcal free world.

*Data on File 2021N483265_00

Francesca Ceddia, MD
Francesca Ceddia, MD

Vice President, Head Global Medical Affairs, Vaccines, GSK