CHICAGO - High school freshman Leslie Meigs has a simple message for kids about the scary disease that struck out of the blue and within hours almost killed her: Get the new meningitis shot.
Children who are 11 to 12, students entering high school and college freshmen headed for dorm life should be vaccinated, federal health officials and the American Academy of Pediatrics announced Thursday. Although meningococcal meningitis affects only about 3,000 people nationwide each year, it kills one-fifth of adolescents who get it.
"This is a very bad disease," said the academy's Dr. Carol J. Baker, an infectious disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. "It's very rapidly progressive in adolescence. You can have an adolescent in a shopping mall at 2 in the afternoon, in the emergency room at 6 in the evening, and death by midnight."
For Meigs, who lives in Houston, it happened at age 8, when she awoke with a slight fever and later started vomiting. By nighttime she was hospitalized with a purplish rash caused by tissue damage from the bacteria infiltrating her bloodstream. She became comatose, had kidney failure, and her parents were told she would probably die.
Meningococcal meningitis doesn't always include classic meningitis symptoms - headache and stiff neck. It can start like the flu and progress to organ failure and tissue damage requiring amputation.
The new vaccine was approved in January, and in February a government advisory panel urged federal health officials to recommend the shot be given to certain age groups - primarily those at highest risk.
The recommendations are aimed at doctors who will be giving the shots, plus parents and the more than 8 million U.S. youngsters urged to get it: 11- to 12-year-olds at routine doctor checkups; 15-year-olds or those entering high school, because they're becoming more socially active and exposed to more germs; and college dorm-dwellers, because close quarters spread disease easily.
Only a single shot is necessary - youngsters who are vaccinated at any of those ages don't need a second one - and it is expected to protect against the disease for up to 10 years. Health officials aren't recommending the shot for all teens because of limited vaccine supplies.
An older meningitis shot, effective for a shorter time, has been given in the past to at-risk children with chronic diseases or who are traveling to outbreak areas.
Already widely available at most doctor's offices, the new shot is expensive - costing patients about $100, but likely to be covered by many health insurance plans.
The pediatrics academy hopes that within three years all U.S. adolescents will receive routine meningitis shots at age 11.
Meigs, 14, says getting the shot should be a no-brainer.
After experimental drug treatment and two months in the hospital, she survived. Now a healthy cheerleader, the twisted burn-like scars from tissue damage on her shoulder, ankles and knees are stark reminders of her ordeal.
"I don't think anyone needs to go through what I went through," she said.
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