AUGUSTA — This school year Maine is joining more than 20 other states in requiring all incoming seventh- and 12th-graders to be vaccinated against meningococcal disease.

Meningococcal disease is rare, but teens and young adults are at the highest risk of getting the illness, which in some cases can be deadly and can also have long-lasting impacts, such as hearing loss, brain damage or the loss of a limb.

“Meningococcal disease spreads easily in large groups and in dormitory-style settings,” said Caitlin Anton, the coordinator for adolescent immunization at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“An infected person can spread the disease by coughing or sneezing directly into the face of others, by kissing a person on the mouth, or by sharing a glass or cup,” Anton said. “That is why it’s so important to make sure teens and young adults get vaccinated. It’s a dangerous disease that strikes healthy young people without warning.”

Requiring meningococcal vaccination, “further aligns Maine’s immunization rules with current national recommendations to better protect the health of all Maine people,” she added. “The meningococcal vaccine has been recommended by many health care providers for more than a decade (and) it’s (now) a school requirement in more than 20 states.”

School districts across Maine have attempted to inform parents about the new vaccination requirements. According to Anton, immunization documentation is required in order for students in the specified grades to be able to attend school. However, there are  a limited number of exemptions for this new mandate based on medical, religious or philosophical grounds.

“Parents are encouraged to make an appointment for their incoming seventh- and 12th-grade children to get a meningococcal vaccination as soon as possible,” she said this week. Anton said the vaccine is required in pubic and private schools.

The Maine CDC recommends that all adolescents receive a dose of MCV4 vaccine at 11 or 12 years of age, with a second, or booster dose, administered at 16. However, Anton said, adolescents who receive a first dose after their 16th birthday do not need to bother with a booster shot.

“Symptoms of meningococcal disease can first appear as a flu-like illness and rapidly worsen,” according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “The two most common types of meningococcal infections are meningitis and septicemia. Both of these types of infections are very serious and can be deadly in a matter of hours.”

The most common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis are fever, headache and a stiff neck, the website states. Additional symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light and an altered mental state or confusion.

“Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial form of meningitis, which is a serious infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord,” Anton said.

Meningococcal septicemia symptoms can include chills, severe aches or pain in the muscles or joints, rapid breathing, diarrhea and a dark purple rash in the later stages, the national CDC website says.

Doctors can treat meningococcal disease with antibiotics, but it’s important that treatment start as soon as possible, the website adds. The issue is that meningococcal disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are often similar to other, less-dangerous illnesses.

“Fortunately, (meningococcal bacteria) are not as contagious as germs that cause the common cold or the flu (and) people do not catch them through casual contact,” the national CDC website states.

“People spread meningococcal bacteria to other people by sharing respiratory and throat secretions (and) generally it takes close or lengthy contact to spread these bacteria.”

Anton said parents should be able to get the meningococcal vaccine for free since most pediatricians belong to the Maine Immunization Program, which provides vaccines at no cost for children from birth to age 18, regardless of insurance status.

In addition, some schools and school districts offer school-based health clinics, which can administer the vaccine.

This story was updated to indicate there are some exemptions to the vaccination requirement.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The Maine Department of Education is requiring all incoming seventh- and 12th- graders to be vaccinated to prevent meningococcal disease, a rare but sometimes deadly disease that strikes healthy young people without warning, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.