Could meningococcal B vaccines protect against gonorrhea? Scientists think they could

The researchers say an expanded meningococcal B vaccination program in the Northern Territory could help advocate for the vaccine to be provided to more children and adolescents across the country.

The bacteria that cause the B strain of the disease are among the most common types of meningococci in Australia but, unlike the ACWY vaccine, the B vaccine is not part of the national immunization program for all young people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander infants and those with certain medical conditions can access the vaccination for free, but others must pay up to $150 for a dose.

The Northern Territory started offering the vaccine to people aged 14 to 19 last year and it has now expanded the scheme, which is part of a research trial.

Helen Marshall, a vaccinology expert at the University of Adelaide, said there was “growing evidence” that the meningococcal B vaccine could provide some degree of protection against gonorrhea.

“The reason we do it in the Northern Territory is because [it has] the highest rates of gonorrhea are in the 15-19 age group, which is when you’re giving the MenB vaccine to protect against the disease,” she said.

Professor Helen Marshall is the principal investigator of the meningococcal B vaccine study “B Part of It”.(Supplied: AOTY)

Research of international significance

Meningococcal disease is rare, but infections can be life-threatening.

About 10% of the population carry meningococcal bacteria in their throats at any time and it can be spread through close contact, such as kissing.

Gonorrhea, on the other hand, is much more common, with around 86 million cases of the sexually transmitted disease recorded each year worldwide.

Prof Marshall said ‘even a small impact on gonorrhea would have a huge impact’.

Gonorrhea infections, especially in women, are often asymptomatic, and repeated infections can lead to infertility.

South Australia goes it alone

It would be up to the manufacturer to re-bid for the vaccine to be listed on the federally funded National Immunization Program.

The most recent review was in 2019, when the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee recommended it be made available to First Nations infants, but found that it would not be profitable more widely subsidize the vaccine for children or adolescents.

The only state that funds its own meningococcal B vaccination program is South Australia, which did so in response to rates of the strain nearly double the national rate.

Meningococcal vaccine
Unlike the B vaccine, the ACWY meningococcal vaccine has been shown to be effective in preventing carriage of the bacteria.(ABC News: Selina Ross)

Prof Marshall was one of the lead investigators of the South Australian B In It trial, which she says showed the meningococcal B vaccine was “100% effective” in protecting adolescents against the disease.

However, the B vaccine – unlike other meningococcal vaccines – does not appear to reduce carriage of the bacteria that causes the disease, meaning it cannot be used to boost herd immunity.

The flu season, an increased risk

The vaccine was recently offered to students at a secondary school in Cairns after three cases of the disease have been detected the.

Cases of the B strain have also been detected in recent days in Adelaide and northern Tasmania.

Meningococcal rash
A distinct rash may be one of the clearest signs of meningococcal disease.(Provided)

Prof Marshall said poor flu seasons often lead to an increase in meningococcal cases and that flu vaccinations would be important to reduce the risk this winter.

“It’s most likely an infection that disrupts the cells that line the throat,” she said.

“There’s a lot of inflammation and if you’re actually carrying this hypervirulent strain of meningococci at that time, you’re at higher risk of this bacteria getting into the bloodstream.”

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