Protection, risks, and lessons learned the hard way: why parents need to know about meningitis

11 Jan

By Robbin Thibodeaux

My son Thomas had been sick with flu-like symptoms all week. When I had not heard back from him, I knew something was wrong. His father called to tell me he was admitted into the hospital. By the time I reached the hospital, Thomas was in a coma. He passed away Christmas morning.

Thomas was just 19. A healthy college freshman and a passionate surfer, he was full of life and kind-hearted, with a sense of humor that could make an entire room laugh. His family and friends meant the world to him, and he to us.

It’s hard knowing the disease that took Thomas’ life – meningococcal disease – might have been prevented if I’d only known that there was a vaccine.

I am concerned about the impact that the pandemic is having on vaccination rates. Many families have skipped or postponed annual checkups – and as a result, children have missed out on their scheduled vaccines, potentially increasing the danger of other deadly diseases. Pediatric vaccination rates have dropped more than 40% in California since March.

Parents of teens, in particular, should be aware of the risks of meningitis. Meningococcal disease may be rare, but it’s a serious bacterial infection that can be deadly. Anyone can get meningitis, but teens and young adults are at increased risk. When the infection sets in, it can progress rapidly, claiming a life in as little as one day. Even with treatment, up to 15% of those who catch it will die; 1 in 5 who survive will live with permanent disabilities. The consequences can include hearing loss, brain damage, kidney damage, or amputations.

Meningococcal disease spreads through respiratory and throat secretions, like coughing or kissing, so it’s clear teens and young adults are at heightened risk. Living in close quarters, as they do in camp cabins, in dorms, or in military barracks, increases their chance of spreading it. Crowded social situations can increase risk as well.

Fortunately, meningococcal disease can be effectively prevented with a simple vaccination regimen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the first dose of the MenACWY vaccine at age 11-12, with a second dose at age 16. The CDC also recommends that parents discuss the Meningitis B vaccine with their child’s doctor, as the B strain has caused recent outbreaks on college campuses. Unfortunately, many don’t even know about the MenB vaccine.

Today, I work closely with the National Meningitis Association to make sure families know about meningococcal disease. Even before the pandemic, as many as half of all teens were missing the critical second dose of the MenACWY vaccine. This second dose is so important because it helps ensure that the protection kids receive after the first dose at 11-12 doesn’t wear off.

With many parents continuing to cancel or postpone their kids’ well-visits, adolescents are also going without other essential vaccines. HPV, Tdap and flu vaccines are all vital in helping them stay healthy. The drop in vaccination throughout the country this year is immensely concerning, and it would be disastrous to see an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases as a result. I strongly encourage all parents to speak to their child’s doctor to make sure their child is up-to-date on all recommended vaccinations.   

Now more than ever, we understand the value of preventing diseases like meningitis. Even as teens are finding their own social circles and testing their independence, they still need care from the people who raise them. They need protection that goes with them as they grow.

For more information, talk to your child’s health care provider and visit and

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