How to protect kids from meningitis


What is it?

Meningococcal disease, sometimes called bacterial meningitis, is a potentially fatal bacterial infection that may cause death or disability within hours.

What is the treatment?

Health care must be immediate and aggressive to prevent death and/or serious side effects. Once meningococcal disease is suspected or diagnosed, it is treated with heavy doses of antibiotics. Early treatment is essential to reduce the risk of death. However, because the disease can progress so quickly, early treatment does not guarantee a full recovery. Antibiotics also should be given to those in close contact with a person who is diagnosed with meningitis.

What are the symptoms?

Sudden onset of fever, headache and stiff neck.

Nausea, vomiting, sensitivity to light.

Altered mental status and seizures.

After the disease has taken hold, a rash may appear.

How is it spread?

Meningococcal disease is contagious. The disease is transmitted through air droplets and direct contact with infected people (e.g., coughing, kissing).

Is it viral or bacterial?

Viral meningitis is caused by a virus and has symptoms similar to bacterial meningitis but is neither as deadly nor as debilitating. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no specific treatment available for viral meningitis at this time. Most patients recover on their own.

Bacterial meningitis is caused by one of several types and strains of bacteria residing in the throat or nasal passages. This form is extremely dangerous, fast-moving and has the most potential for being fatal. Many (but not all) forms of bacterial meningitis can be prevented by vaccination. Someone who has recovered from meningitis can still benefit from the vaccine.

Source: National Meningitis Association

In the years since her son Evan died of bacterial meningitis, Lynn Bozof has been on a mission.

It is one she shares with scores of other mothers whose children have fallen victim to the deadly infection; and with school nurses who say more than 36 percent of Georgia teens are unvaccinated against meningococcal infection.

“To me, meningitis was a disease I’d heard of, but it wasn’t going to affect my family,” Bozof said.

She was wrong.

In fact, between 1,000 and 1,200 people become infected with the bacteria each year in the United States, and teens and young adults are at greater risk than others. Last year in Georgia, five cases, including one death, were reported.

With schools and colleges back in session, the Georgia Association of School Nurses says awareness of meningitis — and the vaccine for it — is critical. Many activities that go hand in hand with preteens and teens returning to school, including coughing, sneezing and kissing, can increase their risk for contracting meningitis.

Among adolescents and young adults, Bozof said, one in seven who get the disease will die. And another one in five will be left with very serious side effects such as kidney loss, amputation and neurological problems.

“It’s a horrible, horrible disease, and people need to know that it is potentially vaccine preventable,” she said.

And so for the past 14 years, Bozof, now president and a founding member of the National Meningitis Association, has devoted her life to preventing this from happening to another family.

“We didn’t have a choice,” she said, “so we wanted parents to know there was a vaccine out there that could protect their children.”

Disease takes over quickly

When the bacteria entered Evan’s body, he was a junior at Georgia Southwestern University, where he was an honor student and a pitcher on the Hurricanes baseball team.

One day he called his mom, complaining of a horrible migraine, nausea and light sensitivity. He didn’t think he could go to his game that day.

“Baseball was everything to Evan, so I knew if he was skipping his game, he must have been really sick,” Bozof said in the quiet of her home recently.

She told him to rest and called back two hours later to check on him. Evan felt worse.

Bozof suggested he ask his roommate to take him to the hospital emergency room.

Doctors told them Evan had “a little virus,” but they intended to keep him overnight. There was no need for them to come. Evan would be fine by morning.

As Bozof tried to reach her husband, a doctor called.

“Your son has bacterial meningitis, and he has about a 5 percent chance of surviving,” he told her.

Bozof dropped everything and with Evan’s dad headed to Americus, stopping midway only to see if their son was still alive.

There they were ushered into a room. Doctors wanted to prepare them for what was ahead of them. When you get meningitis, it can get into the bloodstream and cause your organs to fail and sepsis or meningococcemia, which increases the chances of death.

Evan was barely recognizable. Purple blotches covered his body. Doctors eventually put him in a medically induced coma and sent him to another facility and then to another.

At the last one, they amputated his legs above the knees and his arm above the elbows. Ten hours of seizures killed his brain.

“My husband, younger son and I went into his room and watched as they took him off life support,” Bozof said.

It was April 20, 1998. Evan was just 20 years old.

They watched him flatline. They watched as he was being put into a body bag. They watched as he was carried away. Then they found out there was a vaccine that had been routinely used in the military for about 20 years that could’ve saved Evan’s life by preventing the disease.

Getting the word out

Bozof and her husband, Alan, went to work and in 2000 led the charge to get a state law passed requiring public and private colleges in Georgia to either require students to get vaccinated or sign a waiver.

In 2002, the couple joined forces with other parents whose children had fallen victim to the illness to form the National Meningitis Association, a nonprofit that seeks to raise awareness among parents, medical professionals and others about bacterial meningitis. The association conducts a broad range of educational initiatives, and it supports activities by other organizations focused on ensuring adolescents receive meningococcal and other recommended vaccines.

Other campaigns in Georgia include the Voices of Meningitis “Boost Our Rates” initiative, to help educate parents about the importance of meningococcal vaccination for their preteens and teens.

Jeannie Edwards, spokeswoman for Voices and past president of the Georgia Association of School Nurses, said that school nurses are on the front lines every day when it comes to protecting students’ health and have seen how devastating infectious diseases can be, especially meningitis.

“Parents can help protect their preteens and teens by getting them vaccinated,” she said.

Edwards said that meningitis vaccinations are recommended for children age 11 or 12, with a booster dose by age 18.

“Vaccination is the most effective way to help prevent meningococcal meningitis, which may be rare but can kill an otherwise healthy child in just a single day,” Edwards said.