Friday, April 26, 2013

The Complexities of Meningitis and Vaccinations

When my half sister was around 8 she got meningitis. She lived on the West Coast and I was in my first year of high school in Ontario. It is safe to say I really didn't have direct connection with her illness. But she spent the next two years of her life in and out of BC Children's Hospital, with her longest stretch being around 3 months. As the years past, when the subject would come up, people would ask me if she had had viral or bacterial meningitis. I said I don't know -"...but it was the really dangerous kind". I knew she had come close to death a few times, so I thought it was a reasonable assumption. Frankly I had no idea how complex meningitis can be.

Just after I was invited to attend a round table for World Meningitis Day, and how the use of vaccines can help protect our kids, I happen to be visiting my family. So I asked what kind of meningitis my sister had had. And my overly simplistic view of meningitis completely changed. My sister had viral meningitis. Which of course cannot be prevented with a vaccine. But the fast moving, invasive bacterial meningitis can be prevented with a vaccine.  

Great don't kids get those vaccines?!  Again it isn't that simple.

First what is Meningitis? It is a potentially deadly inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, which can be caused by a virus, bacteria or fungi. Bacterial meningitis is the most severe type. It can strike quickly, be difficult to diagnose (its symptoms are similar to the flu) and can lead to death in a matter of hours. 

How is it Spread? It is spread in a similar way to a cold or the flu, by close contact, ie: sneezing, coughing, sharing water bottles, kissing or other close physical contact. Many people can unknowingly carry the disease and easily pass on the disease to un-immunized people. Since it is very difficult to stop the spread of germs, especially with kids and young people, prevention becomes an important consideration. M

But my 5 year old son has had several Meningitis C Conjugate vaccinations. He should be covered then? Yes...but no.
The disease can be divided into groups, A, B, C, Y and W135. Four of these strains have a vaccine that can prevent the disease - A, C, Y and W135. The meningitis vaccination provided by the Province of BC to our kids prevents against Type C. There is a combined A-C-Y-W135 conjugate vaccine available. But if you want it you will have to pay for it. 

Brodie Campbell

Many of us believe since we get that Meningitis C Conjugate vaccine that we are covered. Colin Campbell and Judith Osbourne believed that. But they lost their healthy and vibrant 15 year old son Brodie within 48 hours to this invasive devastating illness. Brody had been vacinated with the C Conjugate vaccine. But he had the Y-strain. Which could have been prevented with the combined A-C-Y-W135 conjugate vaccine.

My point...

As a mother who just went through the vaccinations for my 5 year old son, including the addition of a newly added Chicken Pox booster (which meant a traumatic and acoustic breaking 2nd shot). I have to wonder why the Province of British Columbia can't see its way to provide more complete protection against a deadly invasive disease such as meningitis. I am not debating that Chicken Pox prevention is important. But why do I have to pay to get complete protection against a disease that is easily spread and that can KILL within hours? And at least 4 other provinces in Canada provide the shot.

Note that none of these vaccines would have helped my sister, as she had an equally complex Viral Meningitis, which is separate from the above mentioned groups. I can't even start to explain the different viruses that can cause the viral form of the disease. More info can be found here. And it cannot be prevented with any vaccine or treated with antibiotics. My sister lives with the effects of her extended illness to this day.

Disclosure: I was invited, but unable to attend a roundtable on World Meningitis Day with Colin Campbell and Dr. Gio Miletto. I was not compensated for this post in any way.


For those looking for more information on Meningitis check Note that this disease can affect people of all ages, and that symptoms are different in adults and children.