Video: A year-round disease

By Chief medical editor
NBC News
updated 2/26/2007 3:24:12 PM ET 2007-02-26T20:24:12

A reporter’s life is a little like a doctor’s life. We get to meet people, step into their lives and then leave. We don’t expect to stay and rarely do we expect relationships to develop.

But I realized that rules like this are meant to be broken when I met Lynn and Alan Bozof in 1999. I was the medical correspondent for ABC News and was reporting on a series of outbreaks of meningococcal meningitis on college campuses.

Meningococcal meningitis is a serious bacterial infection that affects the bloodstream and the linings of the spinal cord and brain. Most cases occur in babies and children, although it can affect adults. Meningococcal infection is spread by close or prolonged contact, such as coughing, sneezing or sharing of eating or drinking utensils.

Although I trained as a pediatrician and knew that meningococcus was a particularly virulent type of meningitis, I was unprepared for the effect that this particular story would have on my life.

The Bozofs were like so many other middle American families. They were raising two good boys — brothers who dreamt of being doctors and one day practicing together.

Evan, the eldest, was a sophomore at the University of Georgia Southwestern, Americus. Like so many college students, he was studying hard, partying on the weekends and not getting enough sleep. On March 24, 1998, Evan called his mom. He thought he was coming down with the flu. He had a headache, sore throat, aches, fever, nausea and vomiting. But this was not the flu and, within hours, the seemingly simple infection evolved into a nightmare. 

The Bozofs drove to the community hospital where Evan was hospitalized. Before their eyes, his flu-like symptoms turned to a rash and then, limb by limb, gangrene. Evan had been a star baseball player. The Bozofs were told that in a desperate move to save Evan’s life, the doctors would need his parents’ permission to amputate a limb. They said yes.

The Bozofs also worried about what Evan would think when he woke up, so they documented his hospital stay with photos. How else could you explain to your student athlete son why you compromised his athletic future in order to save his life?

The harrowing decisions did not stop there. 

The decision to amputate a limb was one that they would make four times. Twenty-one days later, after multiple surgeries, Evan died without ever gaining consciousness.

It’s an understatement to say that this family has never been the same since Evan’s death.

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Their grief and their outrage fueled a change in American medicine. Lynn and Alan Bozof found out that for the price of a pair of sneakers Evan could have had the meningococcal meningitis  vaccine. But it was not required for college and never offered by their doctor. They are on a mission to change that. 

I was so struck by the Bozoffs’ pain and kept trying to put myself in Lynn’s shoes – the maternal guilt, sorrow and pressure on the marriage. At the Bozoffs' invitation, I joined the advisory board for the National Meningitis Association.

Through the awareness campaigns of the NMA and the tireless efforts of meningitis survivors and the families that have been affected, there is a push to get teenagers vaccinated.

The military has known for years that soldiers in tight communal living have a greater chance of contracting meningitis, so it vaccinates recruits.

College dormitories have tight living quarters, too, and getting vaccinated against meningitis has not been an admissions requirement at schools. Yet, our public health-care policy has not reflected what we know. 

There are 2,500 to 3,000 cases of meningoccal meningitis a year and most could be prevented with the vaccine. The death rate is 15 percent. The complication rates from organ failure and amputations are even higher. 

A year-round disease
For my husband, me and our three children, this vaccine was a must. We have a college sophomore, a high-school senior, and a sixth-grader. I may not be able to protect them against everything, but this was a no-brainer.  

Menactra is the newest and longest-lasting vaccine. At a cost of $70 to $100, it’s not cheap and not perfect — it’s only 85 percent effective against four of the five strains. But it’s the best we have right now. It’s safe and it saves lives. 

While there have been calls to make this vaccination a requirement for admission to college, some states have been slow to mandate the shot. Not all colleges have the same immunization requirements. I think that’s a shame. 

Since high demand for meningitis shots led to a vaccine shortage last year and caused the government temporarily to change its recommendations, there’s been confusion over who should get the shots and when. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention want parents and physicians to understand that the vaccine is available now. Meningitis is a year-round disease. Don’t wait for back-to-school season.

The National Meningitis Association or the CDC can provide more information about this disease and what you can do to prevent it. If you decide that your children should be vaccinated, don’t be talked out of it. 

I’m quite serious when I tell you that this could save your child’s life. 

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