BERWICK, Maine — The recent loss of 6-year-old Evalise “Evie” McLean to bacterial meningitis was a tragedy that struck close to home for Jeri Greenwell.
Greenwell, who lives almost 100 miles north of Berwick in Bethel, lost her son Jerry to meningococcal meningitis in April of 2003. Jerry was 23.
Greenwell’s family has since made it their personal mission to educate others on the prevention of the potentially vaccine-preventable infection.
Greenwell recalls the morning of April 11, 2003, as one similar to what occurred in the McLean home.
She said Jerry woke up that morning with flu-like symptoms, but over the course of the day his symptoms got progressively worse. She said by late that night, he had rashes all over his legs and he could no longer walk. His friends had to help carry him to the emergency room.
A matter of hours later, Jerry was diagnosed with an unknown strain of meningitis and transferred to critical care.
“None of us could even imagine the consequences to follow,” she wrote. “As we stood idly by, unable to do anything to help, we watched our son fade away before our eyes.”
Greenwell said her son was exceptionally healthy and she didn’t understand how he could so quickly become so ill.
“Jerry was drifting further and further away and all we could do was watch, and pray,” she wrote. “And then our son was gone. It wasn’t from a car accident. It wasn’t from cancer. These would have been tragedies in their own right. This was much more of a silent killer.”
‘Full of promise’
Jerry died on April 14, 2003, from a contagious form of meningitis. Unlike Evie, he had not been vaccinated against it.
Greenwell said her son’s life had been “full of promise.” A college graduate, he had been working as a restaurant supervisor in Portland.
After his death, Greenwell was invited to become a MOM — Moms on Meningitis — for the National Meningitis Association. She later became a member of its National Advisory Committee.
“We need everyone to know that meningitis knows no boundaries,” she wrote. “It is highly contagious and strikes with terrifying speed and consequences.”
Greenwell said approximately 10 percent of the infection’s victims die and around 15 percent of those who survive are left with serious disabilities.
“Most families, like us, were unaware of a vaccine that could have saved their children’s life or their anguish from its devastating consequences,” she wrote.
Greenwell said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a vaccination against meningococcal meningitis for children aged 11 to 12, followed by a booster dose at age 16. The vaccine can be given at a later age, but is recommended less than five years before starting college.
The vaccine is available for those aged 6 weeks and older and although not 100-percent effective, it does protect against the five most common strains of the disease that cause the majority of cases.
Greenwell said statistically, “The CDC has ranked Maine in the top 10 of states whose parents opt not to vaccinate their children.”
Because of this fact, Greenwell worked with the Maine State Legislature in 2004 to pass a piece of legislation into law that increases awareness of the disease and requires prevention education for all Maine college students who live on campus.
The CDC states, “Vaccine-preventable diseases still circulate in the US and around the world, so continued vaccination is necessary to protect everyone from potential outbreaks. Even when diseases are rare in the US, they can be brought into the country, putting unvaccinated children at risk.”
Greenwell wants to continue her efforts to educate others on the symptoms of the infection and preventable measures that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of it taking another life too early.
“Even one child lost to this disease is one too many,” she wrote. “Everyone needs to know the dangers and more importantly, the signs. This disease, can strike ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime.’”
For more information on the meningococcal vaccination visit www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd-vac/mening/who-vaccinate.htm.
Distributed by MCT Information Services