Meningitis Vax Tied to Bell’s Palsy Risk

meningitis vaccine for children

Story at-a-glance -

  • A significantly increased risk of Bell’s palsy, which causes paralysis or weakness of facial muscles, was found when meningococcal vaccine was given along with another vaccination
  • The risk of Bell’s palsy increased 2.9-fold in the 12 weeks after vaccination among those administered concomitant vaccines
  • Bell’s palsy has previously been noted as a complication of hepatitis B, smallpox and influenza vaccination (seasonal and H1N1)

By Dr. Mercola

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends meningococcal conjugate vaccines (brand names Menactra and Menveo) for all 11- to 12-year-olds along with a booster dose at 16.1

Menactra and Menveo vaccines (MCV4) contain four strains of meningococcal (A, C, W-35, Y) and are intended to help prevent invasive meningococcal disease, which is a bacterial infection caused by Neisseria meningitidis, or meningococcus, when the bacterium enters the blood stream.

Meningococcal organisms are naturally present in the throat and nasal passages of humans and the majority of children develop antibodies to the bacteria without having any symptoms.

There is a very low incidence of meningococcal disease in the U.S. but, rarely, individuals who are genetically or biologically susceptible to developing invasive meningococcal disease are at risk for severe injury and death, including loss of limbs.

Symptoms may start out similar to influenza and can progress to nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light, red or purple skin rash and confusion.

Other symptoms of severe bloodstream infection and inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis) include sudden high fever, severe persistent headache, stiff neck, joint pain and unresponsiveness.

Despite the CDC's insistence that vaccination is the best way to protect all children against invasive meningococcal disease, serious questions remain about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness.

Meningococcal Vaccination Linked to Bell's Palsy

In a study using data from nearly 49,000 people between the ages of 11 and 21 years, Hung-Fu Tseng, Ph.D., from the Southern California Permanente Medical Group in Pasadena, California, and colleagues evaluated the safety of quadrivalent meningococcal conjugate vaccine.

A significantly increased risk of Bell's palsy, which causes paralysis or weakness of facial muscles, was found when the vaccine (Menveo) was given along with another vaccination. The condition typically occurred five to 10 weeks after vaccination.

Overall, the risk of Bell's palsy increased 2.9-fold in the 12 weeks after vaccination among those administered concomitant vaccines. Bell's palsy has previously been noted as a complication of hepatitis B,2 smallpox and influenza vaccination (seasonal and H1N1) as well.3

Research published in Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics also revealed an increased risk of cranial nerve palsies following vaccination, especially combinations of vaccines.4

In 59 percent of the cases, the palsies were identified as serious, which suggests, the authors noted, "that a cranial nerve palsy may sometimes be the harbinger of a broader and more ominous clinical entity, such as a stroke or encephalomyelitis [inflammation of the brain and spinal cord]." They continued:5

"Cranial nerve palsies have been reported to VAERS [Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System] following a wide variety of inactivated and live attenuated vaccines.

Reports for trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine were the most frequent among single-vaccine reports, but they constituted only a weak plurality and not an overwhelming majority.

The reports listing multiple vaccines largely reflected the most common combinations of routine immunizations administered to infants and young children: Diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis vaccine, Hemophilus influenzae type b vaccine, Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine 7-valent, and Poliovirus vaccine inactivated given together, as well as measles, mumps and rubella vaccine live co-administered with varicella vaccine live."

Serious Adverse Events Revealed When Menactra Is Administered Along With HPV Vaccine

Bell's palsy is not the only adverse event that's been revealed when meningococcal vaccines are administered along with other vaccinations, particularly Gardasil human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

The CDC recommends both Menactra and Gardasil for all 11- to 12-year olds in the U.S. and, although they may often be administered simultaneously, this concomitant use was not studied for safety in Gardasil's initial clinical trials.

In 2007, only a year after Gardasil was approved, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) analyzed reports of serious adverse events reported to VAERS after individuals received Gardasil alone or along with Menactra.6

They revealed a 1,000-percent increase in reports of the autoimmune disorder Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS) to VAERS when the vaccines were administered simultaneously. Reports of other serious adverse events were also significantly increased, including:

  • Respiratory problem reports increased by 114 percent
  • Cardiac problem reports increased by 118 percent
  • Neuromuscular and coordination problem reports increased by 234 percent
  • Convulsions and central nervous system problem reports increased by 301 percent
  • Reports of injuries from falls after unconsciousness (vasovagal syncope) increased by 674 percent

In 2010, Merck released a clinical trial showing that the concomitant use of Menactra with Gardasil "did not compromise the safety," but at the same time admitted that the trial may have been skewed because of "incorrect administration" of the Menactra in 92 subjects,7 which in my opinion questions the validity of this trial, especially since it had so few subjects in it to begin with.

State-Mandated Meningococcal Vaccines

Total video length: 18:51

More than two dozen states mandate meningococcal vaccines for all children attending school, typically during grade 6 or 7, but there is much debate over whether this one-size-fits-all policy is safe and cost effective.

MCV4 is one of the more expensive pediatric vaccines on the U.S. market. It costs an average $115 per shot in a private pediatrician's office, not including administration fees, and an average $78 per shot through the federally subsidized Vaccines for Children (VFC) program.8

As noted by Christina Abel, a registered nurse with Vaccine Awareness Minnesota in response to Minnesota's meningococcal vaccine mandate for 7th graders:9

"It does not seem reasonable nor is there a need to require the meningococcal vaccine in Minnesota …

Meningococcal disease is rare in the U.S., including Minnesota

The bacteria [are] not easily transmittable

Vaccinating adolescents does not create herd protection in the community.

The vaccine does not reduce the seriousness of the disease

Routine vaccination of Meningococcal vaccine (MCV4) is not cost-effective."

Rates of meningococcal disease in the U.S. are at a historic low. Cases decreased more than 60 percent from 1998 to 2007,10 and in 2013, the CDC reported there were about 550 total cases of meningococcal disease reported in the U.S., which is an incidence rate of 0.18 cases per 100,000 persons.11

In other words, meningococcal disease is relatively rare. In 2011, Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of NVIC, explained some of the concerns about adding meningococcal vaccines to the U.S. vaccine schedule.

Be Informed About the Meningococcal Strains Included in Each Vaccine

In 2000, the CDC recommended that all college freshmen get a dose of meningococcal vaccine that contains four strains (A, C, W-35 and Y). In 2005, they also recommended that all 11-year-olds receive the MCV4 vaccine. However, strain B, a type that is not included in MCV4 vaccine, is associated with more than 50 percent of meningococcal cases and deaths. In children under the age of 5, strain B is responsible for up to 70 percent of meningitis cases.

In 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a meningococcal vaccine that includes strain B, but the vaccine showed lower-than-expected results when tested on college campuses. The vaccine (4CMenB) was administered during an outbreak at Princeton University in 2013 (before it was approved for use in the U.S.).

Out of the nearly 500 college students who received two doses of the vaccine, 34 percent had no immune response to the outbreak strain, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).12

Many People Are Asymptomatically Colonizing and Are Carriers of Meningococcal Organisms

According to the NEJM, at any given time about 5 percent to 10 percent of Americans are asymptomatically colonizing meningococcal organisms in their nasal passages and throats.13 Globally, the numbers of asymptomatic carriers may be higher, depending upon the country.

While this may sound like a reason to increase vaccination, being an asymptomatic carrier actually boosts the person's innate immunity to invasive meningococcal infection. This is doubly beneficial for women of child-bearing age, because women with innate immunity are able to transfer maternal antibodies to their newborns, which protects them until they can make their own antibodies.

"By the time American children enter adolescence, the vast majority have asymptomatically developed immunity that protects them," NVIC explains.14 In contrast, any protection provided by meningococcal vaccination decreases over time, which is why a booster dose is recommended for children at age 16, following the first dose at age 11 or 12. The CDC notes:15

"Available data suggest that protection from meningococcal conjugate vaccines decreases in many teens within [five] years, which highlights the importance of the 16-year-old booster dose so that teens maintain protection during the ages when they are most at risk for meningococcal disease. Early data on serogroup B meningococcal vaccines suggest that protective antibodies also decrease fairly quickly after vaccination."

Recommending the vaccine be given at age 11, when children are generally at low risk and knowing any given protection will decrease before the age when they may need it (living in crowded living conditions in college or in the military increases the risk), is therefore highly questionable.

Meningococcal Disease on the Decline Prior to the Use of Meningococcal Vaccines

The CDC further notes that meningococcal disease is at an historic low in the U.S. but not because of routine vaccination:16

"Rates of meningococcal disease have been declining in the United States since the 1990s, with much of the decline seen before the routine use of meningococcal vaccines. In addition, serogroup B meningococcal disease has continued to decline even though vaccines were not available to help protect against it until the end of 2014."

As far as using the argument of herd immunity for vaccinating all middle-schoolers, the CDC itself notes, " … [D]ata suggest meningococcal conjugate vaccines … do not provide protection to the larger, unvaccinated community through herd immunity."17

It's true that the disease can be deadly: It's fatal in about 10 percent to 15 percent of cases. In about 11 percent to 19 percent of cases, long-term or permanent health problems, including loss of limbs, deafness, nervous system problems or brain damage will result.18 However, this is not a disease that's typically transmitted just by standing next to someone who has it.

Meningococcal bacteria cannot live outside the human body very long, so it's not as easily transmitted as, say, a cold virus. Infection occurs via the exchange of saliva, such as sharing a toothbrush or kissing — not from standing next to someone in an elevator.

So the risks of mandated, one-size-fits-all meningococcal vaccination policies need to be carefully reassessed, while researchers should be focusing on why certain people seem to be more susceptible to meningococcal disease than others. According to NVIC:19

"A small minority of individuals, who have genetic and other unknown biological factors … [that] prevent them from naturally developing protective circulating antibodies, are up to 7,000 times more likely to get severe invasive meningococcal disease at some point in their lives."

Children, adolescents and young adults may further minimize their risk of meningococcal disease by not sharing utensils, cups and other personal items, like toothbrushes, with others. And, as always, the key to avoiding infections is to maintain a strong immune system.

The basic steps to keeping your immune system healthy are positive lifestyle choices such as proper diet, stress management, high-quality sleep and exercise, with an emphasis on eating clean, whole foods (organic, pasture-raised and, preferably, locally sourced).