Meningococcal disease is a rare disease, but one with swift and terrible consequences. In a very short time, those stricken can end up in the hospital with this life-threatening illness, at risk of deafness, the need for limb amputation and even of dying.
Discussion of vaccinations for teenagers generally focuses on the one against human papilloma virus, but the importance of the meningococcal vaccine for preteens and teenagers should not be overlooked. That’s why Teen Health Week, which begins this Sunday, is the perfect time to educate parents and teenagers about this lifesaving vaccine. According to the toolkit to help people make the most of the week, only about half of U.S. teenagers have been fully vaccinated.
Unfortunately, this vaccine might be skipped for a couple of particular reasons: Both the HPV and Tdap vaccines are recommended for preteens, though they can be given during adolescence as well. In fact, the first dose of meningococcal conjugate vaccine is recommended at the same time; many states require it in order to enter 7th grade, which helps ensure higher vaccination rates.
But a second vaccination is recommended at age 16, and fewer states require that. Unless high-school students are getting to a doctor’s office for their annual exam, or an annual flu shot, it’s very easy to overlook the need for this second shot. Many states, including Texas, require the vaccine for students entering college because college dorms, with their close living quarters, put students at higher risk, but that does nothing to remind the teenagers who aren’t attending college but still should have gotten their shot at age 16.
Making it even more complicated is the existence of two separate meningococcal vaccines, one the conjugate for several strains, and the other for serogroup B meningococcal disease. The laws don’t generally require the latter shot, and it is not listed as a specific recommendation on the CDC schedule of vaccines. Instead, the CDC offers more nuanced advice that the vaccine is recommended for people known to be at increased risks, perhaps because of serogroup B meningococcal outbreaks at college. An increasing number of colleges are recommending the vaccine. Many families might miss the advice.
How can we remind more people, and have the information stick? One way might be through personal stories; it is extraordinary how many of those who have been stricken with meningococcal disease or their loves ones are brave and caring enough to share their stories, in order to touch the lives of others who should be sure to get their vaccinations. Do you know a teenager, or parent of a teenager, who should hear them?
Here are a few examples taken from the National Meningitis Association’s website of Texas advocates.
“Amy was diagnosed with the flu in October 2011. That night, she started seeing spots and knew something was seriously wrong. She called 911 and lost consciousness in the ambulance. Shortly after her arrival in the ER, Amy’s kidneys failed and she was immediately put on dialysis. It turned out that Amy did not have the flu, she had meningococcal disease. Less than a week later, doctors had to amputate her legs below the knees to save her life, as they were full of toxins and had no circulation. Two months later, most of her fingers were also amputated. She spent a total of 154 days in the intensive care unit. Her treatment included a kidney transplant, donated by her mother.
“Amy did not know that meningitis is potentially vaccine-preventable. Even if she had been vaccinated, the vaccine available at the time wouldn’t have protected her against serogroup B, which she had. Amy’s goal is to keep others from going through what she and her family went through. She educates others about meningococcal disease prevention in order to save lives.”
“Nancy Day of Dallas, Texas, never suspected meningococcal disease, a rare, yet potentially deadly bacterial infection, could strike her 16-year-old son Kyle. One Sunday morning, Kyle woke up complaining of a headache and nausea. Thinking he was coming down with the flu, Nancy suggested he take a nap. When Nancy checked on Kyle later that day, she noticed that he was in a semi-conscious state and had developed a rash all over his body. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors performed a spinal tap and confirmed Kyle had meningococcal disease. As a result of the disease, Kyle lost his thumb and two fingers. While Nancy had heard of meningococcal disease, she was unaware there was a vaccine available that could have helped protect her son.”
Patsy and Jamie Schanbaum
“Patsy’s 20-year-old daughter, Jamie, almost lost her life in November 2008 to meningococcal meningitis. Jamie was visiting with a friend and began to feel nauseous and was having trouble breathing. The next day Jamie was so weak she could hardly walk down the stairs. Concerned, Jamie’s sister took her to the emergency room. Upon arrival, she was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit/Isolation and a few days later was placed on a ventilator to help her body survive the initial infection. Three months later, doctors were forced to amputate Jamie’s fingers on both hands and both legs above the knee, but Jamie survived. While Patsy was aware that a vaccine existed for meningococcal disease, she did not have Jamie vaccinated because she did not know the risk for the disease and doctors never discussed the importance of vaccination with her.
“ ‘Parents need to be aware of meningococcal disease and speak with their health care providers about protecting their children,’ said Patsy. “Vaccination is the best way to prevent this devastating disease.’ ”
For more stories, and to watch many of these people tell their own stories on video, go to NAM’s website.
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