The idea of losing a child to a vaccine-preventable disease is foreign to most modern American parents. We were born in a time after polio and smallpox. Most of us have never heard the telltale whoop of pertussis or seen a measles rash creeping across a toddler’s body. Even those we entrust with our children’s health have not seen many of the diseases that we can now prevent. It is a shining example of the efficacy of vaccines and the tenacity of those who have worked tirelessly to produce and administer them.
And yet, every year, we still lose children to diseases for which there are vaccines. Some are too young to be vaccinated, some are too sick, some have parents that have refused vaccines, and some are just unlucky. That is a fate that two mothers know all too well. Kimberly Coffey and Emily Stillman were both promising young women at the very beginning of their adult lives when they were lost to meningitis B. Kim was a high school senior days away from graduating and Emily was a sophomore in college.
Each one had received the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which covers groups A,C,W, and Y. Neither was aware that the group infecting their daughter was not covered by that vaccine or that a vaccine for meningitis B existed, but was not available in the US at the time of their daughters’ deaths in 2012 and 2013.
Even in the country that repeatedly boasts of the best healthcare in the world, medical providers were powerless to stop the harmful effects of the disease. Bacterial meningitis works quickly and starts innocuously, with early symptoms often being mistaken for the flu. Kim was in organ failure within a day of her first symptoms, and Emily passed away just 36 hours after entering the hospital. Had either been lucky enough to survive the infection, their lives likely would have entailed brain damage and limb amputations.
In the years since their daughters’ deaths, both moms have become passionate advocates for the meningitis B vaccine. In 2014, the FDA approved a meningitis B vaccine for use in the United States, and as of this writing, there are two available. However, ACIP has not revised their recommendations to include meningitis B on vaccines recommended for school attendance despite meningitis B being responsible for 100% of meningococcal disease outbreaks on college campuses since 2011.
Recently, Patti Wukovits (Kim’s mom) and Alicia Stillman (Emily’s mom) have teamed up to form The Meningitis B Action Project. Their goal is simple; to spare families the pain that they have endured. Until ACIP changes their recommendations, parents first need to be aware that there are two different meningitis vaccines, and medical providers play a part in educating parents about the need for both.
We shouldn’t settle for 80% coverage when the missing 20% is responsible for half of all meningococcal disease cases in 17-22 year olds. We have an obligation to our children to keep them safe, and by getting both of the meningococcal vaccines, we greatly increase our ability to do just that.