FRIDAY, Sept. 11, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- While public attention has been focused on getting vaccinated for both the seasonal flu and H1N1 swine flu this fall, a nationwide effort has been launched to highlight the need to be vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis, a rare and sometimes deadly infection that tends to strike teenagers and college students.
Labeled the "Voice of Meningitis," the campaign was launched recently by the National Association of School Nurses (NASN) to educate parents about the availability of a safe and effective inoculation against this fast-moving disease, which at its worst can cripple or even kill an affected young person in as little as 24 hours following the initial onset of flu-like symptoms.
"I was approached about three to four months ago to be the spokesperson for the 'Voice of Meningitis' campaign," explained actress Lori Loughlin, star of both the TV sitcom "Full House" and the new CW network incarnation of the popular series "90210."
"I accepted because I am a mother of three, and I was not aware of this particular strain of meningitis -- meningococcal meningitis -- and I thought it's important to get the information out that there is a vaccine for this, because it's very, very serious and heartbreaking what happens when people don't know there's a vaccine," Loughlin said.
Loughlin's children are 10, 11 and 17. Her family, therefore, falls squarely within the recommended vaccination guidelines promoted by U.S. public health officials, which encourage meningitis shots for youths between the ages of 11 and 18. Vaccinations are also recommended for college freshmen living in dormitory settings, Loughlin noted.
"It's much more prevalent in this age group because of all the physical contact," she observed. "The kissing, kids sharing lip gloss, drinking from the same cup, sharing locker rooms together, dormitories. So, it's a higher risk category."
"And this is a bacterial infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord that can kill a healthy child or a healthy teen in as little as one day, and leave survivors with lifelong complications," cautioned Amy Garcia, a registered nurse and executive director of NASN.
Though the viral version is considered far less harmful to patients, the more rare bacterial form is serious business for the approximately 3,000 Americans -- 30 percent of whom are teens and young adults -- who come down with that form of the disease each year.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the bacterial form of the disease -- in which bacteria attach to the mucosal lining of the nose and throat before entering the bloodstream and prompting organ failure -- is lethal in about 10 percent to 12 percent of cases. Those who survive may develop lifelong complications, including brain damage and/or limb amputation.
"So, while it's a relatively rare disease it can be absolutely devastating," Garcia warned. "And the point is that the death rate is five times higher among the recommended vaccination age group then among other age groups. So as a parent and a nurse, I encourage moms and dads to think about whether or not your teen has been protected. And if not, go online to voicesofmeningitis.org to learn more, and call your health provider to schedule an appointment for vaccination because I want teens to receive this vaccine before they need it."
Garcia described the symptoms as "tricky" to discern, since they often seem to be the product of a mild illness before progressing rapidly.
"Usually, they'll be a severe headache, stiffness of the neck, a high fever and confusion," she noted. "But the symptoms can vary with age. When that group of symptoms is present, the child needs medical care immediately. This is an emergency, and even then it may be too late. So this is a disease that is best prevented."
To that end, Garcia advised that both versions of the two vaccines now available in the United States -- both produced by the drug manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur, a co-sponsor of the campaign -- have been around for many years, and "are considered safe and effective," she said.
"I can't think of any provider who would discourage a parent from getting their child vaccinated, but parents should absolutely discuss the issue with their health professional and make a decision," Garcia said. "I don't want any family to suffer the agony of this disease."
"Obviously, knowledge is power," echoed Loughlin. "And had I not been approached for this campaign or been a parent who goes for yearly check-ups, I, too, would have been in the dark about this. And I was very thankful to learn about it, and I have vaccinated my kids. So, from one mom to all the other moms out there, I just want to make them aware."
For more on meningococcal meningitis, visit the National Meningitis Association.