Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researchers have shown that a new vaccine can be safely given to infants as young as 6 weeks to provide immediate protection against a potentially fatal bacterial infection.
The investigators, headed by Dr. Mathuram Santosham, found that the vaccine is more than 90 percent effective in protecting newborns from Haemophilus influenzae type B or Hib -- the leading cause of meningitis, an inflammation of tissues surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
"We proved that this is the only vaccine available today which can be safely administered as early as 6 weeks of life and which provides protection with the first dose," said Santosham, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian and Alaskan Native Health.
Widespread use of this vaccine, which actually is an injection that acts like a vaccine, "could virtually eliminate Hib" and its deadly effects on children around the world, he said.
The results of the study are reported in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
The vaccine, which is called Hib-OMPC, was tested on Navajo and Hopi infants living on a reservation in Whiteriver, Ariz. These children, like some other American Indians and Eskimos, are 10 to 50 times more susceptible to Hib-related disease than the general U.S. population.
"Early vaccination is vital to the success of Hib-OMPC," Santosham said. "At least 40 to 50 percent of Hib infections occur before six months of age in Native American populations, and 15 to 20 percent of Hib cases are seen before six months in the general U.S. population."
Unlike other meningitis vaccines, Hib-OMPC is known as an "active" vaccine, one that allows the infant to build its own antibodies against the infection and provides an unbroken chain of protection until the immune system is mature enough to fight off the Hib organism. That usually occurs around 18 months of age.
Earlier vaccines have been effective only in older babies and had
to be repeated.
Hib strikes 20,000 children in the United States each year. Half of the cases develop into meningitis. Five to 10 percent of those infected die and survivors often develop neurological disorders including hearing loss, paralysis and speech problems.
In addition to being the leading cause of meningitis, Hib can cause pneumonia, blood poisoning, infections of the ears, joints, skin, lining of the heart and a potentially fatal throat infection.