A mother's story: Why children may not be protected from all forms of meningitis

Oct 7, 2017

You do everything you can to protect your children and this includes vaccinating against any illness they might encounter. Most states mandate that your child gets the meningitis ACWY vaccine. While this will protect your child against most strands of meningitis, it doesn’t account for bacterial meningitis or meningitis B.

Patti Wukovits, a registered nurse, thought she had her daughter covered when she received the vaccine mandated by New York state law. Wukovits’ daughter Kimberly came home from school with common symptoms of the flu, the next day she was admitted to the hospital for meningitis B. Kimberly passed away three days before her high school graduation. Patti established the Kimberly Coffey Foundation in her honor.

Joining us is Patti Wukovits and Dr. Allan Tunkel, associate dean for medical education at the Warren Alpert School of Brown University, to discuss not only Kimberly’s story, but the effects this disease can have on the young adult population.

Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection that causes swelling of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Viral meningitis has four types: A, C, W, or Y. There is a vaccine for these types and usually if someone has viral meningitis it clears up on its own. Bacterial meningitis or meningococcal disease (usually just referred to meningitis B) can have serious and life threatening side effects if not treated with antibiotics right away.

Meningitis presents itself with flu like symptoms. These include:

  • Stiff neck
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Altered sensorium (the inability to think clearly or focus)
  • Muscle and joint aches
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rash (in about 50 percent of patients)

While these symptoms can be commonly confused with the flu, there are some ways you can distinguish between the two.

Kimberly Coffey

“Patients who have the fever and are having headache[s] that is unremitting despite administration of appropriate analgesics like acetaminophen for example or are developing stiff neck, or just don’t seem right, those are really the warning signs that much more may be going on,” says Tunkel.

Despite being admitted to the hospital and immediately received aggressive treatment of the disease, Kimberly passed away three days before her high school graduation. This outcome isn’t as common with meningitis B.

“I would say it is not that common but definitely can occur particularly in patients who are infected by the bacteria that’s meningococcus. There are some patients that have a rapidly overwhelming form of this disease that could get sick very, very quickly and can have a very bad outcome,” says Tunkel. “Probably 10 to 15 percent of patients who develop meningococcal meningitis will die of their disease.”

How it is spread

Meningitis B is spread through the exchange of saliva like sharing drinks or utensils or through close contact with someone that has it for a long period of time. But this doesn’t mean that if you have the virus or bacteria, that you will get sick from it.

“I can tell you that if you just did swabs in the back of the nose in of the general population, the general adult population you would probably find this meningococcus bacteria in about 10 percent of people,” says Tunkel. “But it’s there and it’s never going to cause them any problem.”

Guidelines for getting the vaccine

States, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have guidelines as to what vaccine you should get. According to the Immunization Action Coalition, 30 states currently require 11-12 year olds to get the meningitis vaccine and 13 of those states also require a booster by grade 12.

“States that have legislation in place, such as New York, seventh and 12th-graders must be vaccinated in order to attend school. But it’s very important to know that that requirement does not include meningitis B vaccination,” Say Wukovits.

“And I think why they didn’t make this definitive recommendation is just because they need additional data regarding the breadth and duration of protection with this particular vaccine,” says Tunkel.

Wukovits started the Kimberly Coffey Foundation to help raise awareness and push for legislation for the vaccine so families don't lose a child to meningitis B like she did.

“There’s no downside to getting vaccinated, it’s always good,” says Wukovits. “I believe the only reason would be [controversial] because it is a fairly new vaccine and we don’t have all the data in to see what the long term protection would be. At this point, why wouldn’t you get vaccinated? The vaccine is available. I know Kimberly would still be here today if I had the opportunity to have vaccinated her.”