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  • What: A meningococcal disease prevention campaign from the National Association of School Nurses.

    Why it matters: Meningococcal meningitis is a bacterial infection that potentially can kill or disable within one day of the first symptoms appearing. It's difficult to recognize because early on it resembles more common viral illnesses.

    Who gets it: Teens and young adults are most at risk – even if they're otherwise healthy. About 10 percent of the 1,000 to 2,600 Americans who get meningococcal meningitis each year will die, but death rates are as much as five times higher for 15- to 24-year-olds.

    How it's spread:

    • Sharing drinking glasses, eating utensils or water bottles
    • Being in crowded situations for prolonged periods of time
    • Kissing
    • Not getting enough sleep
    • Smoking (or being exposed to smoke)
    • Living in close quarters (dormitories, boarding schools, sleep-away camps)

    How to protect against it: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical groups recommend meningococcal vaccines for children ages 11 through 18, college freshmen living in dormitories, and children ages 2 through 10 who are at higher risk.

    More information:

Campaign focuses on meningitis

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2011 - 9:39 am

When her daughter, MaryJo, complained about a sore throat one Saturday morning, Rose Kwett thought she had the flu.

Kwett is a registered nurse, and nothing about her daughter's symptoms alarmed her. MaryJo was a bit warm, so her mother told her to drink lots of fluids and that she'd check on her every so often.

Thirteen hours later, MaryJo died from meningococcal meningitis. It was eight days before her 16th birthday in 2000.

"She had been very healthy, but she died in a single day," Kwett said. "I'm a nurse and I was still unable to tell that something was wrong with my daughter until it was too late."

To help other parents avoid this tragedy, she has joined Voices of Meningitis, an educational campaign by the National Association of School Nurses that emphasizes the importance of meningitis vaccinations. It brings together people who are affected by the disease - including parents like Kwett, school nurses, survivors and public health officials - to raise awareness.

Kwett, who lives in Carmichael, has been speaking at health fairs, schools and colleges.

"I encourage students and parents to talk to their doctor to see if the vaccine is for them," she said. "If (MaryJo) was vaccinated, she would still be here with me."

Thomas Ferguson, medical director of the student health center at the University of California, Davis, said meningitis is a bacterial infection that gains access through the mouth or nose.

"It spreads into the bloodstream and into the brain," he said. When it gets to the central nervous system, through the spinal fluid and around the brain, it becomes very hard for the immune system to fight it. Once you develop the symptoms ... it progresses very rapidly within hours."

The Center for Disease Control reports that people age 16 to 21 have the highest rate of meningococcal disease, which can lead to meningitis. Everyday activities such as drinking from the same cup, sharing lip balm or kissing can spread the disease. Schools are a particular hot spot.

The CDC recommends that all 11-year-olds should get vaccinated, with a booster shot by the time they're 18.

"The symptoms of meningitis start out pretty mild, and are often confused with other common viruses, like the flu," said Linda Davis- Alldritt, president of the National Association School of Nurses, which has joined the campaign.

These symptoms include high fever, severe headaches, stiff neck, confusion and rashes.

Another indicator of meningitis is the appearance of brown or purple blotches on the skin.

When Sacramento resident Chris Villere was 12, he came home after a baseball practice with a headache and fever. His mother, Susi Villere, didn't think it was anything too bad. Until she saw the purple blemishes.

"I realized it was very serious, and I rushed him to the hospital," she said.

The purple blotches meant that the meningitis-causing bacteria had begun poisoning Chris Villere's blood. After a week in recovery, Vellere was able to flush the disease out of his body.

Not only did Vellere survive his ordeal, he recovered in one piece. Others who survive the infection can be left with neurological damage, permanent disabilities and amputated limbs.

Vaccines are available at doctors offices and local health providers. According to Ferguson, college-age students in student housing are particularly vulnerable, and UC Davis offers vaccination clinics for its students.

"I was lucky," said Vellere, who is 21 now and attends Tulane University. "Some people could feel well at breakfast and be dead by dinner."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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