While we focus our attention on the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot forget about the host of other potentially fatal viruses that threaten us every day, such as meningococcal meningitis. This bacterial disease looks like the flu in the first critical hours, but it can quickly develop into brain and spinal cord swelling, accompanied by symptoms that include headache, fever, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and a stiff neck.
As a person who survived bacterial meningitis in my sophomore year at The University of Texas at Austin, and as the father of a Texas A&M student who died from it, we know the seriousness of this vaccine-preventable disease. Anyone can contract meningitis, including babies. An immuno-compromised person is at particular risk. For children under the age of 5, meningitis combined with neonatal sepsis accounts for the second-highest leading infectious cause of death.
Incidents of bacterial meningitis in Texas have fluctuated dramatically this century, from a high of 317 reported cases in 2012 to 21 in 2019, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. While the incident rate is highest in older adults in Texas, children or young adults catch the disease at a disproportionally higher rate, particularly college students.
Thanks to the advocacy of The Immunization Partnership and individuals and organizations working with us, the Texas Legislature in 2011 passed the Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act, which Gov. Rick Perry signed. This law required the meningitis vaccine for all students under the age of 30 attending on-campus classes at Texas colleges and universities. Two years later, Texas lowered the age to 22 to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations.
World Meningitis Day on April 24, and World Immunization Awareness Week, which starts on the same day and runs through April 30, provide an opportunity to remind parents and all adults that vaccines are the first steps that lead to a world free from meningitis and other vaccine-preventable illnesses. Vaccines help protect against the three bacterial meningitis forms most commonly seen in the U.S., but they are not 100% effective, as is the case with all vaccines. This means everyone should know the symptoms of meningococcal disease, because quick medical attention could save a life. A previous infection will not offer lifelong protection. The CDC says to check with your healthcare provider to see if you have an underlying immune deficiency if you contract meningitis twice.
If you have close contact with someone with meningitis, you should ask your healthcare provider about whether to receive antibiotics to prevent you from getting sick. Examples of close contact include individuals living in the same household, roommates, and anyone with direct contact with a patient’s saliva or spit.
For World Meningitis Day and World Immunization Week, we ask everyone, particularly parents, to make sure the members of your family receive the meningitis vaccine, and are current with all other vaccines. COVID-19 has shown us what happens when we do not have a vaccine to protect us. That is not the case with meningitis. Please join us in our goal of a world free of meningitis and all vaccine-preventable diseases.
Jamie Schanbaum (thejamiegroup.org), and Greg Williams and his family (nicowilliamsfoundation.org) advocate for meningitis awareness and vaccination uptake.