Atlanta will soon host what could be a pivotal event in the fight against vaccine-preventable diseases. When CDC officials meet in the city this month, they will, for the first time, have the power to ensure that children and other at-risk groups can access protection against all five of the most common strains of bacterial meningitis.
While vaccinations against four meningococcal strains are widely available, the Food and Drug Administration recently expedited the approval of new vaccines against the fifth type – meningitis B – which has become the most common cause of meningococcal disease in children and adolescents.
With FDA approval complete, it’s now up to the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices to make sure that meningitis B vaccines reach the public. CDC action is critical, because most health care providers and insurers need a CDC recommendation in place before a new vaccination can be offered.
With the ability to vaccinate against all five strains of meningitis now within our reach, we must make sure that all children get that chance at protection.
It’s a chance my little girl never got.
I remember March 17, 1989, like it was yesterday. My 4-year-old daughter Brooke woke up with a high fever, which continued to spike throughout the day. At the doctor’s office, it took hardly any time all to realize we needed to head to the hospital. Our doctor knew it was meningitis.
As we arrived at Egleston Hospital and rushed through the emergency room entrance, it suddenly became real. I felt utterly helpless as my little girl was immediately quarantined from the rest of the hospital.
I was finally able to be with Brooke, though I was not at all prepared for what I saw – my child in a hospital bed, in a tangle of tubes and IVs, with machines monitoring every breath.
She fought so hard to stay with us. “I love you, Mommy,” she said in a feverish voice as the doctors worked to save her. Those were her last words to me, just 26 hours after being diagnosed. By the time we knew what we were up against, it was already too late.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of those moments or wish that Brooke could have been protected against the disease that took her life.
As Brooke’s story shows, bacterial meningitis is devastatingly fast-moving, and it can be deadly even with prompt treatment. Since losing my daughter to meningitis, I have met many others who have suffered at the hands of this disease. Many of those who were fortunate enough to live through it were left with permanent disabilities, such as loss of limbs, scarring, loss of hearing and brain damage.
My daughter’s life was over before the age of 5, because she was born earlier than the vaccine that could have prevented her suffering and mine. The CDC should act swiftly to make sure children are protected against all five forms of meningitis. These vaccinations will save lives, just as they would have saved Brooke’s.
Rhonda Butler is the Georgia team leader for Meningitis Angels, a nonprofit organization supporting families affected by bacterial meningitis. She lives in Locust Grove.