By Dara Torres, 12-time Olympic medalist and mother
As parents, we do all we can to prepare our kids for a healthy transition from summer vacation to the new school year, which brings new teachers, lots of homework and demanding sports schedules. But, when gearing up for the transition, there is one thing moms should remember to protect their children against: potentially fatal meningococcal disease.
While we may have grades and carpools on the mind, parents should know that meningococcal disease, the result of a rare, but serious bacterial infection, can progress very rapidly and take the life of an otherwise healthy person in as little as one day after symptoms first appear.
So, how can your child catch meningococcal disease? Spread through contact with respiratory secretions (saliva), the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease can be transmitted when a person coughs or sneezes. As a result, the disease can be spread through common everyday activities such as sharing water bottles and utensils. Being in close quarters, such as cramped locker rooms and taking long bus trips can also increase the risk of exposure to the germs. In addition, fatigue may raise the risk of meningococcal disease, possibly by weakening the immune system.
I’m sure you’re also wondering about the signs and symptoms of meningococcal disease, which can resemble those of common viral illnesses, such as the flu, and should not be dismissed. Parents should watch out for any of the following:
• Stiff neck
• Sensitivity to light
• Headaches and/or vomiting
However, it is important to keep in mind that as many as 30 percent of patients with meningococcal disease present without distinct signs of meningitis or severe blood infection, and are admitted to the hospital with only fever and a “rash.”
And, even scarier, data show that about 10 to 15 percent of the 800 to 1200 Americans who get meningococcal disease will die. Of those who survive, nearly one in five are left with serious medical problems, including amputations; neurologic damage; deafness; and kidney damage.
To help raise awareness about the serious consequences of meningococcal disease and urge parents to take action and vaccinate against the disease, I’ve teamed up with the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) and Sanofi Pasteur for Get in the Game: Keeping Teens Healthy, a national campaign that is a part of the Voices of Meningitis educational program.
As the national campaign ambassador for Get in the Game, I want to help educate parents about the seriousness of this disease and spread the word that the best way to protect our children is to get them vaccinated. Many parents aren’t aware that this disease is a threat or that there are vaccinations available to help prevent it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends routine vaccination of adolescents 11 through 18 years of age (a single-dose of vaccine should be administered at 11 or 12 years of age, with a booster dose at 16 years of age for children who receive the first dose before 16 years of age).
As a mother, I know how busy this time of the year can be, running from one activity to another. But parents shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of vaccination for meningococcal disease. My hope is that parents will feel empowered and motivated to speak with their children’s health care provider about their children’s vaccination status and whether they could be due for a primary or booster dose to help protect them through adolescence. Physical appointments for the new school year are an excellent time to initiate this conversation with your health care provider.
For more information about meningococcal disease and the Get in the Game Campaign, visit Facebook.com/VoicesofMeningitis.