Students entering high school and college should be vaccinated against meningitis using a new, longer-lasting vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
The agency also urged that 11- and 12-year-olds be vaccinated.
The advisory strengthens the CDC's recommendation five years ago that college students consider being vaccinated. The earlier advisory did not cover children.
Each year, about 3,000 Americans contract meningococcal disease -- a variety of brain, spinal and blood infections that includes meningitis. About 300 Americans die each year from such infections.
As much as 10% of the population carries the bacteria that cause the illness, most without becoming sick themselves. It spreads through coughs, sneezes and kissing, which makes college students living in dorms or similarly close quarters susceptible.
It often strikes suddenly, causing a high fever, severe headache and nausea. About 15% of meningococcal disease survivors suffer serious long-term effects, such as brain damage, amputations and hearing loss.
"It's a horrible disease," said Dr. Robert Frenck, a pediatrics professor at UCLA and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases.
"You can catch it and literally be dead six hours later."
The academy endorsed the CDC's recommendation.
The agency advocated use of a new meningococcal vaccine, Menactra, made by Sanofi Pasteur. The vaccine, approved in January by the Food and Drug Administration, should confer immunity for at least seven years, compared with three to five years for the old vaccine. The primary adverse reaction is a sore arm, the CDC said.
Several bacterial groups cause meningococcal disease. Menactra is effective against all of the major groups except one that primarily affects infants, and for which there is no available vaccine.
The CDC's statement followed a recommendation in February by its advisory panel of vaccine experts.
The vaccine is not recommended for children under 11. Trials of safety and effectiveness for younger children are pending, said Dr. Reginald Finger, a member of the agency's advisory panel.