A Personal Story about Meningitis and Life Saving Vaccines

Emily Robb, M.D.By Emily G. Robb, M.D.

It was the summer of 1992. I’d just arrived home after finishing my freshman year at college. Although I was exhausted from finals and the end of the year celebrations, I immediately returned to my summer job working full-time at the hospital as an EKG tech. Unfortunately, I only made it part way through my first eight-hour shift when I developed a fever of 101 degrees and was sent home.

That evening I had all the symptoms of a classic stomach flu – vomiting, fever and chills.

Things got significantly worse by 2 am.

I woke up with a strange rash and was very confused. My parents discussed what to do for a few hours. They called a nurse line and got conflicting suggestions of waiting it out or taking me to the ER. I continued to get even more confused and lethargic and the rash was spreading fast, so they decided to take me to the ER at about 5 am. By that time, I was unable to walk, barely conscious and near death. The doctor in the ER immediately recognized that I might have bacterial meningitis and started me on IV antibiotics even before proceeding with the lumbar puncture and blood cultures.

Lee's Summit Physicians Group: MeningitisIt turns out I did have bacterial meningitis, caused by Neisseria Meningitis, and spent the next week in the ICU in a state of delirium and on the edge of death. My liver and kidney’s failed and I had double pneumonia. But after six days, I woke up and wondered what the heck I was doing in the ICU. I barely remembered any of it. My hands and feet were numb and my whole body was covered with large black spots where the skin had died.

I was transferred to another floor where I spent two weeks recovering and having all the dead tissue removed by the wound care team. This left me with very large, open wounds all over my body. I was so weak. I went home with a walker to keep from falling because all my muscles had atrophied while I was lying in bed for 3 weeks.

In 1992, schools did not require meningitis vaccines to go to college.

Not many people had even heard of bacterial meningitis despite college kids dying from it every year. Education about bacterial meningitis and mandatory vaccinations for college kids didn’t begin until after the year 2000. Recommendations for routine vaccination of 11-12 year-old kids began in 2010.

Today, most high schools and colleges require proof of meningitis vaccination. Because of this, the infection rate for meningitis has dropped significantly – saving thousands of lives.

Bacterial meningitis is a life threatening disease that strikes quickly and can kill within 24 hours. It is difficult to recognize in its early stages, and by the time bacterial meningitis is diagnosed, it is often too late for treatment. That’s why vaccination against bacterial meningitis is the most effective way to protect yourself. I was very lucky to only have scars from my infection. Those that survive bacterial meningitis often lose arms and legs, go deaf, lose kidneys or end up with brain damage.

Information about Neisseria meningitis from the CDC website

Neisseria meningitides is one type bacteria that causes bacterial meningitis. Meningitis is a contagious infection spread by close contact, such as living with or kissing an infected person. Quick medical attention is extremely important if meningococcal disease is suspected.

The symptoms of meningococcal disease can vary based on the type of illness that develops. Common symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include sudden fever, headache, and stiff neck. Other symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, increased sensitivity to light, and confusion. Children and infants may show different signs, such as inactivity, irritability, vomiting, or poor reflexes.

Meningococcal bacteria can also infect the blood which can lead to tiredness, vomiting, cold hands and feet, chills, severe aches and pain, fast breathing, diarrhea, and a dark purple rash. Meningococcal disease is very serious and can be fatal. When fatal, death can occur in as little as a few hours.

Vaccinations

Knowing my story, it’s not surprising that I’m an avid advocate for all vaccinations. I believe that prevention is the key. When the benefit is so great, and the risk so small, it only makes sense to immunize against all preventable diseases. Vaccines save more lives each year than seat belts and car seats combined.

Neisseria Meningitis is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in adolescents and teens.

There are five different sub-types of this bacteria. There are two different types of vaccines which prevent Meningitis caused by Neisseria Meningitis that are recommended for adolescents and teens: the quadrivalent (Menveo and Menactra) which protects against 4 groups (A, C, W and Y) and group B (Trumenba and Bexsero). The CDC recommends initial vaccination for all adolescents and teens with a quadrivalent at 11/12 and booster at 16/17 years old. The group B vaccination is given sometime between 16-18 years old. Common side effects include redness/warmth at the injection site and fever lasting less than 2 days.

For more information, here is a link to the CDC page on meningitis vaccination.

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