My son Chris passed away just two weeks after kicking the winning goal that made his high school soccer team Arizona state champions.
The day before he died, Chris attended school but complained of a headache. I thought it was the flu. The next morning, he lost consciousness and was rushed to the emergency room. The doctors struggled to resuscitate him but were unable to save him from bacterial meningitis, a rare but deadly disease that turned our world upside down in less than 24 hours. He was just 17 when he died.
Soon after, I joined the National Meningitis Association (NMA) because I didn’t want other families to experience the pain and loss I was suffering. I am concerned that as a result of steps we’ve taken to slow the COVID-19 pandemic, many families have skipped or postponed annual checkups and other doctors’ appointments. In fact, pediatric vaccination rates have dropped across Arizona and nationwide since March due to the pandemic.
Parents of teens in particular should be alert to the dangers of meningitis. Meningococcal disease, which includes meningococcal meningitis and meningococcemia, is a rare but potentially deadly bacterial infection. Anyone can get these diseases, but teens and young adults are at increased risk. The infection can progress rapidly, taking a life in as little as one day. Even with treatment, up to 15 percent of those who catch it will die; 1 in 5 who survive will suffer permanent disabilities, such as hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, or amputations.
Meningococcal disease spreads through respiratory and throat secretions, like coughing or kissing — it is easy to see why teens and young adults are typically at a heightened risk. They often live in close quarters — on school trips, in camp cabins, in dorms or military barracks — where the risk of exposure can be higher. Socializing in crowded settings like dances, parties, bars, or clubs can increase risk as well. As schools work to safely find ways to resume regular operations and college campuses are reopening, teens will find a way to resume these normal activities.
Fortunately, meningococcal disease can be very effectively prevented with a simple vaccination regimen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that a first dose of the MenACWY vaccine is given at age 11-12, and a second dose at age 16 to provide robust protection during teen and young adult years. The CDC also recommends that parents discuss the Meningitis B vaccine with their child’s healthcare provider, as the B strain has caused recent outbreaks on college campuses.
Today, as president of the NMA, I work to make sure families understand the risks of meningococcal disease. Even before the pandemic, as many as half of all teens missed the critical second dose of the MenACWY vaccine. That important second dose gives 16-year-olds a better chance at being protected from this potentially deadly disease. The MenB vaccine at age 16, which is mandated by some colleges, is also an important piece of this prevention regimen. While I hope that everyone is practicing appropriate COVID-19 precautions as recommended by the CDC, adolescents still need their meningitis vaccines. They will protect them now, and will continue to do so when life begins to return to normal.
I encourage all parents of teens to speak with their child’s pediatrician about the CDC-recommended meningococcal vaccines — and other adolescent vaccines — they need.
This year, kids have missed out on many of the experiences that are part of a healthy childhood. Schools have been upended, activities like sports and plays have been canceled. We can’t afford for kids to miss out on essential vaccine protections as well.
It’s more important now than ever that we understand the benefits and value of preventing diseases like meningitis. Even as teens are finding their own paths and meeting significant life milestones, they still need support and protection from the people who raise them as they grow.
For more information about meningococcal disease and prevention, talk to your child’s health care provider and visit nmaus.org and The16Vaccine.org.