It’s been awhile since I picked on the real science journalists (as opposed to we Daily Show-esque “fake news” sites). I don’t mean to get down on them too much; I know that there are many out there who do an incredible job, but then there are also ones who write up articles like this one on how “…women in northern Europe evolved with light hair and blue eyes at the end of the Ice Age to stand out from the crowd and lure men away from the far more common brunette.”
So especially for you infectious disease types, can you spot a glaring omission in this article: “Meningitis A vaccine hope” ? Puzzle it out if you like (and the title alone may give you a clue); my comments after the jump.
First, the gist of the story: there’s a new meningitis vaccine under development for use in sub-Saharan Africa, which periodically suffers due to meningitis epidemics. These outbreaks can be huge–they mention a 1996 outbreak in which 200,000 were infected (with 20,000 dead). Last year had similar mortality but fewer cases overall (44,000 cases, 5500 deaths). Given these numbers, an effective vaccine to combat these infections would, of course, be welcomed, and it’s thought it can be done (relatively) cheaply:
“In the context of global health, this is an easy win for relatively little money,” said Dr. Orin Levine, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who was not connected to the new vaccine’s development.
Sounds fine–so what’s my beef with the article? Do you see anywhere in the article where the actual organism they’re trying to vaccinate against is mentioned? Yeah, me either.
What they’re talking about here are epidemics caused by the gram-negative organism, Neisseria meningitidis. Within the species, there are different serotypes of the bacterium, with the most common being types A, B, C, Y, and W135. So this is where the “Meningitis A” terminology comes in–what they mean to say is “Neisseria meningitidis serotype A” or its nickname, “meningococcus serotype A” or “type A meningococcus” or something along those lines. At least the AP article includes a reference to “meningococcus,” although they too leave out the actual species name.
Why am I bothering to nitpick this? Am I just being too pedantic?
I don’t think so, and here’s why. The problem is that many different organisms can cause meningitis–and none of them are called “Meningitis A.” All the organisms I work with, for example, have the potential to cause meningitis. To complicate matters, there are a number of vaccines out there that are commonly described as “meningitis vaccines,” including vaccines against Streptococcus pneumoniae (Prevnar) and Haemophilus influenzae serotype B (Hib). While these are both recommended for children, there’s no routine vaccine for children in the U.S. that protects against N. meningitidis. [Edited to add: Alexis brings up in the comments the MCV4 vaccine recommended for older kids, but it's not effective in young children and not in common use yet.] The AP article mentions this, kind of, saying the vaccine they’re writing about is “…unrelated to a relatively new meningitis shot recommended for U.S. children,” but doesn’t make it clear what the difference is. The BBC article says that “…Meningitis A is rare in the UK,” but also highlights that:
Meningitis is one of the world’s most dreaded infectious diseases. Even with antibiotic treatment, at least 10% of patients die with another 10 to 20% left with permanent problems, such as mental retardation, deafness or epilepsy.
Meanwhile, they’ve left their readers with confusing information, and now a bunch of Google searches for “meningitis A” that keep bringing up the articles I’m citing above on different websites, leaving them with little clue just what “Meningitis A” is, besides a nasty bug killing lots of people in Africa.