Now that a hard-to-get meningitis vaccine is more plentiful, health experts recommended Wednesday that the shots be given to all children ages 11-18.
Their advice expands on earlier guidance set when the vaccine was in short supply. Priority was given to college freshmen and teens entering high school, and later to 11- to 12-year-olds.
Wednesday's new recommendations by a vaccine committee that advises the government is not a call for immediate mass vaccinations. But doctors should make a point of offering the shot to youngsters in the 11-18 age range when they come in for checkups, said Dr. Jon Abramson, the committee's chairman.
The recommendations by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices usually are accepted by federal health officials, and they influence insurance companies' decisions on vaccination coverage.
At issue is Menactra, an $89-a-dose vaccine made by Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines subsidiary of Sanofi-Aventis Group. The government approved it in 2005.
The vaccine is designed to prevent bacterial meningitis and an associated bloodstream infection. The disease is not common in the United States, but in those who get it, symptoms develop quickly and can lead to death in only a couple of days.
The bacteria is spread by coughing, sneezing and kissing, and most cases occur in previously healthy children and young adults. It can be easily spread in college dorms.
Demand for the shot exceeded supply. "There was a very enthusiastic response," more than anticipated, said Phil Hosbach, Sanofi's vice president of immunization policy and government relations.
Now supply is comfortably ahead of demand — about 9 million doses should be available this year.
"Supply is good and we're not expecting any problems," said spokeswoman Donna Cary, adding that the company should be able to handle the 7-million-dose demand expected from the new recommendation.
The committee voted 11-1 in favor. The dissenter was Dr. Susan Lett of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, who felt the supply had only recently stabilized and that this step — a reversal of last year's limitations — might leave doctors confused.
Menactra is one of a half-dozen childhood and adolescent vaccines added to federal recommendations in recent years, which has driven the per-child cost of vaccination from $155 in 1995 to $900 for boys and $1,200 for girls.
More than 1 million children aren't able to get the meningitis shots paid for by private or public insurance, said Dr. Grace Lee, a Harvard researcher who presented results of a study she did on gaps in vaccine financing.