(Correction: This commentary was updated at 2 p.m. Monday, Aug. 13, to note that Oklahoma does require the meningococcal conjugate vaccine for college entry. NonDoc regrets the error.)
Globally, meningitis affects 1 million people each year. About 1,000 of those cases will develop in the United States, and today is Oklahoma Meningitis Awareness Day. What better time to talk about the type of meningitis that can be prevented with simple vaccination?
Meningococcal meningitis is known as a silent killer because many people confuse its symptoms with a cold or flu. Symptoms of the disease include fever, severe headache, rash on the entire body, dizzy spells and sensitivity to light.
The most important factor in treating meningitis is time. Typically, the longer someone waits to seek treatment, the poorer the outcome. While meningitis used to be known as a dorm disease but today we have learned that meningococcal meningitis does not discriminate, anyone can be a victim of this deadly vaccine-preventable disease. To that end, the most important factor to consider in preventing meningitis is obtaining the meningococcal vaccine.
‘Get Amanda to the ER’
I know about meningitis too well. On the day before I was set to move away for college, I started feeling sick. I knew something was wrong because I had flu-like symptoms in August. My mother took me to an urgent care clinic in our small rural town, and the provider told me I just had nerves about moving off to college. Go home, I was told, and get plenty of rest.
I went home and did just that, but the next day I had a high-grade fever, horrible headache and body aches. My mom called our family physician and told him my symptoms. His response was, “I just had a nurse die of meningitis in a town nearby. Get Amanda to the ER!” I was diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis.
Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, often causing inflammation of protective membranes. While other forms of meningitis can be triggered without infection, I soon learned that the version I had — meningococcal meningitis — was vaccine-preventable. I had not been vaccinated, nor did I know a vaccine existed. Several months later, another student from another town nearby died of meningococcal meningitis.
Oklahoma mandates help but still fall short
I did not move off to college that year as planned. During my recovery, I realized something needed to be done so as to reduce the chance that others would share my experience. I contacted my newly elected state representative, Joe Dorman and together we advocated for better vaccine policy.
In 2004, Oklahoma mandated that college students be vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis if they live on campus. Around the same time, we started seeing an uptick of meningitis cases in younger adolescents because their behaviors are similar to those of college students. The disease can be spread through close personal contact, such as: coughing, sneezing, kissing, sharing water bottles, etc.
In 2006, we wrote legislation that requires the Oklahoma State Department of Health and the Oklahoma State Department of Education to make information on meningococcal meningitis available to school districts. At the beginning of each school year, this information is to be distributed by schools to the parents or guardians of students. Unfortunately, having these two laws in place has not stopped outbreaks in Oklahoma.
In March 2010, seven children between the ages 5 and 18 contracted meningococcal meningitis in the Oologah-Talala public school system, and two of those children died. One of the survivors, Jeremiah Mitchell, lost his arms and legs to the disease.
It is believed that high schoolers were going to the district’s elementary school to read to younger students, and the year’s seniors were not vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. Our state law does not require elementary or secondary schools to vaccinate against meningococcal meningitis. Only 29 states require vaccination prior to the seventh grade.
Meningitis vaccines available
There are currently two types of vaccines available in the United States for protection against meningococcal meningitis: a meningococcal conjugate vaccine and a serogroup B meningococcal vaccine. We have been routinely vaccinating young adults with the meningococcal conjugate vaccine for many years. It protects against four out of five serogroups, but it was not until recently we had a meningococcal vaccine to protect against the fifth serogroup. That serogroup is common among college students.
Only the conjugate vaccine is currently required for college entry in Oklahoma, but the serogroup B vaccine is not. We also have not seen a huge push for the serogroup B vaccine primarily because individuals do not understand the need for both vaccines in order to have complete protection. All 11- to 12-year-olds should be vaccinated with a meningococcal conjugate vaccine (Menactra or Menveo), with a booster dose given at age 16 years old. All teens also should be vaccinated with serogroup B meningococcal vaccine (Trumenba or Bexsero), preferably at 16 through 18 years of age.
As I celebrate another Oklahoma Meningitis Awareness Day, I hope that more families choose to protect their families against this preventable form of meningitis. Believe me, you do not want your child to contract meningitis.
(Editor’s note: The author has worked in medical sales for the past seven years but does not currently work for a company that produces meningitis vaccines.)