Only 49 percent of Utah’s youths get meningitis vaccinations

Jun 10 2012 - 11:15pm

Utah has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country to protect adolescents against the most deadly type of meningitis.

Stacy Drew, a nurse for Canyon School District in Sandy, said only 49 percent of Utah's youths have been vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis, placing Utah at the 13th-lowest rate in the country.

That is setting a dangerous stage for the disease to become a big problem, she said.

"This is a very deadly disease," she said. "It's rare, but it kills within 24 hours. Most people don't know there's a vaccine available because it's not listed in the mandatory vaccine guidelines -- but health officials strongly recommend it."

Drew is a member of the Utah School Nurse Association, which has joined organizations and community leaders across the country on a national initiative called Boost Our Rates. The goal is to ensure that parents are aware of the current meningococcal immunization recommendations and get both preteens and teens vaccinated.

Those recommendations include a first vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12 and a booster before 18.

"We are calling on public health officials, community centers, civic groups and others to help us boost our rates by educating parents about the importance of meningitis vaccination and the newly recommended booster dose for teens," Drew said.

Meningococcal meningitis is a serious bacterial form of meningitis that can be difficult to recognize in its early stages because it mimics so many other illnesses, Drew said.

"Headache, fever, vomiting," she said. "A child will complain of a headache and will take Tylenol and family members will come home and find them unresponsive."

The disease causes the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed. Symptoms include severe headache, stiff neck, high fever, vomiting, confusion, rash, joint pain, dislike of bright lights, drowsiness and difficulty waking.

Approximately 10 percent of people who develop the disease will die. Many of those who survive can be left with serious complications including brain and kidney disease, hearing loss, amputation and psychological problems.

Anyone can develop meningitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, data has shown that the risk increases in teens and young adults.

That's because people in this population tend to share utensils and drinking glasses and live in close quarters, such as dormitories or tents on summer camping trips.

Teenagers are also involved in many activities that can make them feel run down, weakening their immune systems and putting them at greater risk for the disease.

A website addressing the issue can be viewed at www.VoicesOfMeningitis.org and on a Facebook page where visitors can join the conversation and hear stories of families affected by the disease.

Because the disease can mimic other illnesses and it's impossible to watch your teenager every minute of the day, it's important to get them vaccinated against this deadly but preventable illness, Drew said.

"The vaccine is very safe and very effective," she said. "Washing your hands can help prevent the spread, although if a person gets it, the whole family is typically put on antibiotics. The safest thing to do is to get your child vaccinated. It could save their life."

The vaccine is also covered by most medical insurances and, for uninsured people, by the federal Vaccines for Children program.

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