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This winter, while many parents are focused on influenza prevention, the National Meningitis Association (NMA) is urging parents to also protect their families from meningococcal disease, a deadly but potentially vaccine-preventable bacterial infection.
Linda Fryer's 16-year-old daughter Adrienne lost her life in less than 24 hours to what initially seemed like the flu. The killer was in fact meningococcal disease, which can lead to death or permanent disability within hours. Since her daughter's death, Linda has learned that preteens and teens are at particular risk for the illness, and that there is a vaccine available to help prevent it.
Sometimes, the early symptoms of meningococcal meningitis -- fever, aches and exhaustion -- can be mistaken for flu; however, meningococcal disease can quickly become life-threatening. Although meningococcal disease can strike anytime, late winter and early spring is peak season. With students home for winter break, NMA is encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated now against this devastating disease.
"While flu prevention is important, it is also critical that parents are aware of meningococcal disease, which can be easily misdiagnosed as the flu," said Lynn Bozof, president of the NMA. "Because it moves so quickly and can be so destructive, the best treatment for meningococcal disease is prevention."
Preteens and adolescents are at greater risk for meningococcal disease, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the estimated 2,000 cases that occur in the U.S. each year. The majority of cases among preteens and teens can potentially be prevented through vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends meningococcal vaccination for all preteens and teens 11 through 18 years of age and college freshmen living in dormitories.
"Parents need to know that meningococcal disease exists and that it can be prevented," said Fryer. "After losing Adrienne, I made sure that my other daughter, Amanda, was vaccinated. I encourage parents to speak to your child's health care provider about meningococcal immunization."
Of those who survive meningococcal disease, up to approximately 20 percent will suffer permanent long-term effects, including brain damage, hearing loss and limb amputations. Carl Buher is one such survivor. At 14, he lost both of his feet and three of his fingers to a bout with meningitis. He became ill with flu-like symptoms and developed a purple rash, a tell-tale sign of meningococcal disease. Following diagnosis, Carl was airlifted to a children's hospital where he battled the disease, which he would win only after the amputations.
"My parents almost lost their son to meningococcal disease, and I nearly lost my life," said Buher. "Take advantage of this winter break and set up an appointment to speak to your family's health care provider about meningococcal vaccination."
Meningococcal disease is spread through air droplets and direct contact with those who are infected, such as through coughing or kissing. Certain lifestyle factors, such as dormitory-style living, prolonged close contact with large groups of other teens, irregular sleep patterns and active or passive smoking are thought to put preteens and teens at increased risk for the infection.