Earlier this month, our legislators took an important step when they issued a joint resolution recognizing today, April 24, as World Meningitis Day, acknowledging both the seriousness of this deadly disease and the fact that it can be prevented by immunizations.
One child in Maine has died from meningitis already this year, and I know only too well the pain of losing someone I loved to this horrible disease. Eleven years ago, our son, Jerry, died from meningitis. When we found out there was a vaccine that could have prevented Jerry’s death, we were devastated.
Every year, thousands of people in the United States are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, and 10 percent to 15 percent of those who are diagnosed with it die. It can strike quickly and have devastating consequences. Of those who survive, one in five lives with permanent disabilities such as loss of limbs, brain damage, impaired kidney function and hearing loss. The rate of diagnosis and death in Maine reflects the same trend.
Adolescents and young adults have a higher chance of getting meningitis than the rest of the population, and their death rates are higher if they do get it. It’s a contagious disease and can spread quickly where there are large groups of people in close quarters, such as college dormitories and camps.
That’s exactly why the Centers for Disease Control recommends that children be immunized against the disease first at age 11 or 12, and then receive a booster dose at age 16. Three of every 10 U.S. teens, however, have not received their first dose and remain unprotected, according to the National Meningitis Foundation. Not only does the vaccine help prevent people from getting meningitis, but it also kills the bacteria for those who carry it.
Think that can’t be your child? About 10 percent of people carry the bacteria in their nose and/or throat and don’t get sick, but they can pass it to others.
It is vital that parents follow the recommended immunization schedule by providing immunity early in life, before they are exposed to this potentially life-threatening disease, thus protecting not only their children’s health but also the health of their classmates and the community.
One of the most frightening things about meningitis is that the disease is not always easy to diagnose right away. It often presents as the flu, a headache, stiff neck, nausea, rash or even sensitivity to light. It progresses with alarming speed, however, and can cause death within days, even hours.
Vaccines have been hugely successful in preventing diseases. Yet a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Pediatrics found nearly half (48.7 percent) of children in the United States are under-vaccinated. An estimated 35 million children fail to receive at least one of the vaccines recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, leading to only half of teenagers getting immunized against meningitis and other harmful diseases.
The Legislature’s resolution recommends all residents be immunized against this horrendous disease. Maine is among 17 states that require families to be educated about the risks, to themselves and others, associated with going unvaccinated, but that doesn’t go far enough. Twenty-four other states have laws that mandate teens and young adults be immunized against meningitis. It’s time for Maine to do the same, before another parent has to bury a child.
Jeri Greenwell lives in Bethel and volunteers on behalf of the National Meningitis Association. She’s also a member of the American Legion Auxiliary.