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Parents Don't Often Get Vaccine Info

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Nick Springer had never heard of meningococcal meningitis until he got it.

He was 14 and at summer camp in western Massachusetts four years ago. There was a flu going around, so when he started to feel feverish with an upset stomach, he wasn't concerned.

He spent the night in the infirmary and felt better in the morning. Back at his tent, he soon started vomiting again. His legs gave out and a purple blotch appeared on his skin, signaling blood poisoning. He was rushed to a hospital. Within hours, at a doctor's urging, Nick called his mother in Westchester County, N.Y., to tell her he loved her.

''They thought it was the last thing he was going to say,'' says Nancy Springer, who had no idea how close her son was to death. ''That's how this disease hits. Like a tornado.''

Up to 15% of victims die of the disease, often within a day of the first symptom. Many of those who survive are left with permanent brain damage or hearing loss. Nick, now 18, is one of the lucky ones. He lost his hands and lower legs, and he has had multiple skin grafts, but he's alive and his brain is unaffected. He cycles, snowboards and plays wheelchair rugby and sled hockey.

The Springers now speak out publicly to let parents know that the disease threatens children, teens and college-age students wherever they gather -- sharing water bottles, other drinks or cigarettes -- and to inform them of a vaccine that can prevent it.

''All we're asking is that parents have a chance to know about the option of a vaccine and ways to prevent the disease,'' says Nancy Springer, a founder of the National Meningitis Association (

Because it's not on the list of shots recommended for all youngsters, it may not be covered by insurance, and most doctors never even mention it. But a growing number of states now require college freshmen to be informed of the disease and the vaccine, and New York just passed a law that requires overnight summer camps, as well as colleges, to provide that information.

The vaccine is not perfect, says pediatrician Paul Offit of Children's Hospital in Philadelphia.

It doesn't work in children under 2, who are most likely to contract the disease, he says, and it doesn't cover all strains of the bacteria. Its effectiveness wanes in three to five years.

A new version that produces long-term immunity is expected to be available in the USA within two years. But in the meantime, the current vaccine works against the strains of the bacteria most likely to attack teens and young adults, Offit says.

From a public health perspective, the vaccine isn't cost-effective, since the disease is rare, affecting about 2,500 a year, killing about 300. But, Offit says, parents may not see it that way.

''This is a bacteria where you can be fine one minute and dead a few hours later,'' he says. Parents may be ''willing to spend $65 to $80 to prevent the one-in-1.25 million chance their children will die from it.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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