Sometimes it seems like vaccine-preventable diseases, such as meningitis, are a thing of the past. Just last year, however, cases of meningitis were reported in Warren, near where I practice in Lincoln County.

After people started hearing about the cases, I received a number of inquiries about meningitis vaccine and meningitis in general. While we were able to respond to the need and vaccinate children and adults in the community to protect them from the disease, parents should not wait until there is an outbreak to protect their children.

Recent examples of meningitis outbreaks around the country highlight the importance of being protected.  Just this year, an outbreak at Princeton University in New Jersey, sickened eight students and another at the University of California, Santa Barbara, sickened four students. In addition, a student from Drexel University in Pennsylvania died after contracting meningitis.

This message of prevention is critical for the many parents whose children and teens attend school and college. Making sure your child is protected by having the meningococcal vaccine, whether he/she is at a local school, boarding school or college, could save their lives.

Meningitis outbreaks in school settings have been increasingly common across the country and, as we’ve seen in the midcoast, can happen anywhere.

Meningitis is a serious disease that can cause permanent harm, including brain damage, deafness, learning disabilities, loss of limbs and even death. The disease also can cause pneumonia, severe swelling in the throat (making it harder to breathe), blood infections, joint and bone problems, heart problems, seizures or strokes.

One of the most alarming facts is that meningitis can seem like the flu when it first starts. By the time it’s diagnosed, it may be too late.

Teens are at high risk for being in contact with meningitis because it’s most commonly spread in places of community living, such as colleges, boarding schools, high school locker rooms and camps — places where teens share rooms, or come in close contact with one another. Once caught by one person, meningitis spreads quickly and easily.

This means that the risk is not only to your child, but also to their friends and peers as well. While teens are most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the high risk lasts into the early 20s.

Despite the risks for teens being exposed to this disease, many don’t get immunized against it. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates as many as half our teenage population isn’t protected. CDC numbers show that every year, between 1,000-2,600 people in the U.S. get meningitis. Ten percent of them — between 100 and 260 — die. Of those who live, another 100 to 400 lose an arm, a leg, or maybe both. Many survivors have problems with their nervous systems.

But there is good news: There are preventable forms of meningitis, and provider offices routinely stock vaccinations to protect children and teens against them. Twenty-eight states require teens to have the meningitis vaccine before entering college or secondary school. Unfortunately, Maine isn’t one of them. Therefore, it’s even more important to get the word out, so that Maine parents know the risk to their children and teens.

The CDC recommends that children to be immunized at 11 or 12 and then get a booster shot at 16 as they attend boarding schools, prepare to attend college, or live in other communal spaces. Even if your child isn’t immunized until 15, they still should get a booster dose before heading to college or other joint living spaces.

As you’re making your fall to-do list, put your child’s health at the top and make an appointment to get the meningitis vaccination. Meningococcal vaccine is safe, effective and readily available. Parents should feel comfortable immunizing their child against this horrible disease. Vaccinations are not just for your children’s sake, but also for the sake of those around them.

If you know for sure your child has already received the recommended doses for his/her age, it is still a good idea to call your child’s health care provider to ensure all of their other shots are up-to-date as well. There’s more than just meningitis circulating in dorms, apartments and locker rooms.

Dr. Steve Feder, of Edgecomb,is immediate past president of the Maine Chapter, American Academy of Pediatrics

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