A new commercial promoting a meningitis vaccine — and showing what might happen if parents don't vaccinate their children— has Canadian critics warning parents to examine the facts and not be swayed by such ads.

"The [TV] ads for the vaccine I've seen are very problematic," Dr. Barbara Mintzes, a member of the Drug Assessment Working Group at the University of British Columbia, told CBC News. "I find it really a problem because of the way it's playing into that parental concern to protect their child and using that to sell a product."

The vaccine Menactra protects against four strains of meningitis-causing bacteria.

On Oct. 18, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allowed sanofi pasteur, the maker of the vaccine, to expand its use to children two to 10 years of age, in addition to the current age indication of 11 to 55 years.

But the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunizationsaysthat given the low incidence of the strains of meningitis covered by Menactra, it feels mass inoculations aren't necessary.

It decided in May not to recommend the vaccine for children aged two to 10 for coverage under provincial health plans, although Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick have decided to add Menactra to their childhood immunization schedules.

PHAC's immunization committee had alreadyfully approved another meningitis vaccine that protects against one strain of meningitis.The committeehas also approved Menactra for use in Canada,but it recommends the vaccine only for the immunization of young peopleaged 11 to 24 when "warranted."

"Combined, we see an average of about 37 cases a year in Canada" of thethreeadded strains Menactra covers, Dr. Bryna Warshawsky, the immunization committee's co-chair, told CBC News.

Meningitis kills 10 to 14 per cent of its victims, and 11 to 19 per cent suffer brain damage, loss of limbs or hearing loss, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The disease is most prevalent in children under two.

Keaton Grassie, a nine-year-old Canadian boy, contracted a rare form of meningitis, a strain Menactra protects against,that resulted in the amputation of both legs.

He told his story recently in a CBC Newsworld documentary. "I remember everyone walking into my room and I started smiling," he said."Everyone wasn't smiling back, so I thought, 'OK, this isn't great news then.'"

Vaccine linked tosyndrome

What people watching Menactra's TV spot may not know is that the vaccinehas side-effects, such as links to Guillain-Barré syndrome. According to the CDC, between March 2005 and September 2006,17 cases of the syndrome occurredin the U.S. in 11- to 19-year-olds who hadreceived Menactra.

Guillain-Barré syndrome is a serious neurological disorder inwhich the body's immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. Symptoms include weakness or tingling sensations in the legs, which can spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase until a personis almost totally paralyzed, althoughthe majority ofpatients do recover.

Sanofi pasteur warns about the risks on its website.

"Guillain-Barré syndrome [GBS] has been reported in temporal relationship following administration of Menactra vaccine. Persons previously diagnosed with GBS should not receive Menactra vaccine."

The company said the vaccine is safe and that it doesn't understand theimmunization committee'sposition.

"Sanofi pasteur was disappointed to learn that[the committee]failed to recommend the use of Menactra for the younger group," the company said in a statement. "Fatal cases of [meningitis strains], which are vaccine-preventable, continue to be reported in Canada. We believe the broadest protection possible against [meningitis] is essential in Canada."

Warshawsky said there's been no increase in the incidence of rare forms of meningitis in Canada, which would warrant a review of the public health agency's decision.

"Right now, we don't see an increased prevalence," she said, adding thatthe immunization committee's position could change.

Corrections

  • The story originally suggested that federal health authorities recently decided not to recommend the Menactra meningitis vaccine as part of routine childhood vaccination. In fact, the decision by the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Advisory Committee on Immunization was made in May.
    Oct 30, 2007 7:11 PM ET