Written by Phil Cerroni
Nurses fight to eradicate meningitis
By Phil Cerroni
Vaccination has become a common practice from infancy until we shuffle off this mortal coil. Although more and more children have access to these vital shots, thousands of kids still lack protection against extremely dangerous diseases.
One of these diseases is meningitis, and as the school year gets underway the Texas School Nurses Organization has been advancing the Voices of Meningitis campaign and the “Boost our Rates!” initiative in order to make everyone saver in the school place.
Kimberly Clark, a school nurse in Richardson, is deeply involved with Voices of Meningitis. She stressed that because meningitis is particularly insidious and can be difficult to treat; the best protective measure is vaccination.
“The most important preventative measure parents can take is to get their child vaccinated,” Clark said. “It is very hard to avoid meningitis, because it’s transmitted by having close contact with people. It’s transmitted relatively easily, and the initial symptoms are quite vague; people don’t always realize it’s meningitis. The fever, chills, and nausea are just general things which you can attribute to a cold or the flu. With meningitis the symptoms progress so quickly that within 24 hours it could be fatal.”
Children and adolescents have a much higher chance of catching the disease than adults.
“They’re sharing food, sharing drinks, coming into close contact with their peers, kissing. The older teens are suddenly in a dorm room instead of being at home,” Clark continued. “Anybody can catch meningitis, but that age group seems to be exhibiting those behaviors that make them more susceptible.”
Joel and Tammy Futterman lost their daughter, Rachael, to meningitis five years ago when she was a sophomore at University of Southern Florida in Tampa. She was 19.
Joel retold what it was like seeing his oldest child in the hospital the day after she was admitted.
“She was on life support. Everything was stable but assisted by machines. By this time we learned that Rachael was already brain dead,” Joel said. “Friday she was having flue like symptoms, Friday night she started having seizures.
“Her body was in great shape, but when they disconnected everything, they wanted to see the brain fight back and try to recover, and that never happened. She had a perfectly physical body, athlete volleyball mostly, dancer – healthiest of the three children. She went from everything is fine, to flulike symptoms, to gone in an eighteen hour window.”
The Futtermans say that awareness is one of the most important battles to fight on the issue and have been actively raising community awareness since 2007.
“We didn’t know anything about meningitis when all this happened. Meningitis, hepatitis it all got sort of muddle up in our heads –we weren’t educated about it,” Joel admitted matter-of-factly.
“There are a lot of kids who go to the hospital and are sent home with Advil, Gatorade and end up dying at home alone. No one has ever died from the vaccine,” Tammy added.
They both maintain that their daughter’s death could have been easily prevented if both they and their doctor understood the risks.
“We moved to Texas Rachael’s senior year. She went to an adult doctor, not a pediatrician, who didn’t carry the shots, and we didn’t know about them,” Joel said. “I guess she didn’t deal with children and vaccines. She didn’t recommend it, and she didn’t push the issue.”
Dr. Stephen Slaughter, Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at the University of Dallas, shared some insights into the diagnostic aspects of meningitis.
“The anatomy of the brain and the spinal cord is such that there is a covering called the meninges – it serves as protection and support for the brain,” said Slaughter. “It is really the infection of this covering that the phrase meningitis comes from. We have both bacterial and viral meningitis. Overall, bacterial meningitis is considered the most lethal form you can have.
“The vaccine protects against bacterial meningitis. Although the viral strain is still serious, it is not nearly as life threatening. Viral meningitis, while it can be severe, and you may end up in the hospital, is considered a lesser form,” he continued. “In treatment you help control the symptoms of that, but the prognosis for patients with viral meningitis is much better than with bacterial.”
Slaughter went on to explain why meningitis is so dangerous.
“Probably the main side effect of having a bacterial meningitis infection is a change in the permeability of the membrane surrounding the brain thus leading to increased fluid on the brain,” he said. “If we increase the amount of fluid in the brain, the area of the expansion becomes the brain itself, causing the damage.”
This explains some of the symptoms people have reported.
“Usually what happens, individuals will report with bacterial meningitis, they generally run a fever; they also will often report the worst headache they’ve had in their life,” continued Slaughter.
Sometimes survivors come out badly scarred.
“If you do have bacterial meningitis and treatment does not occur quickly, these individuals will often suffer organ failure, kidney failure things like this as well as losing limbs – ultimately because of damage around the brain,” Slaughter said. “I’ve seen kids who’ve lost the use of limbs as a result of it. “Sometimes, no fault of the parents, but treatment is delayed, because you don’t necessarily know if it’s a cold or something that children commonly get. So it is sometimes a tragic situation, but many of these individuals with today’s treatment receive therapy on time and have few side effects from that.”
This is why Voices of Meningitis in cooperation with the National Association of School Nurses and Sanofi Pasteur has been conducting vaccination campaigns across the country and specifically in Texas with the “Boost our Rates!” program.
State lawmakers have also responded to the problem by making vaccination mandatory for both incoming seventh graders and college freshmen under the age of thirty.
“Each school district does different things. There are several local immunization clinics, the Care Van that parks in a McDonald’s parking lot and offers vaccinations, and we do rely on those places to help get vaccinations to these kids,” Clark said gratefully.
All of this hard work has apparently been paying off. 2010 data showed that 65.4 percent of children and teens in Texas were vaccinated. In 2011, 79.1 percent had been protected from the disease.
Slaughter’s figures on how many people actually contract the disease were no less impressive.
“The incidents since these vaccinations have become popular and more widely used has dropped noticeably. It used to be 2 in 100,000 were susceptible. It’s moved more into the ones, 1.3 or something per 100,000 acquiring this particular disease,” he said.
Clark said the greatest challenge is, “Really and truly just spreading the word and making parents aware that the vaccine’s there. It’s really just a simple treatment for something that’s rare but could be fatal. We’re just trying to spread the word.”
For more information visit www.voicesofmeningitis.org