Feb 21, 2020
Life before vaccines: Meningitis B
Vaccination is one of the greatest advancements in public health, saving hundreds of millions of lives in the past century.
But ironically, the very success of vaccination has given some a case of historical amnesia, doctors say. Rising, unfounded skepticism about the benefits of vaccines have led to outbreaks of once-rare diseases in recent years.
“People know about these diseases as mythic dragons. Years ago, you built castles and moats and city walls to keep those monsters out,” said Dr. Sean Palfrey, above, a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. “We try not to terrify people, but if they're saying these things aren't important anymore, we have to remind them they're out there, and if we let down our guard, they will break in and maul us.”
Coverage spoke with clinicians and loved ones of those who suffered from illnesses that vaccines have since made rare, including measles, smallpox, polio and meningitis B (a magified image of the virus is seen above). Their words offer a powerful reminder of the vital importance of vaccination.
Learn more about how vaccines work
While many vaccines were developed decades ago, researchers are constantly working on new ways to protect patients against deadly diseases. For example, the meningitis B vaccine, which was approved in late 2014.
Though relatively rare, the disease causes infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord and kills 10 to 15 percent of those who are infected, according to the CDC. Ten to 20 percent will have lasting effects including hearing loss, brain damage and loss of limbs.
In particular, infants younger than 1 year and young adults 16 to 23 are susceptible. Meningitis B has caused all outbreaks of bacterial meningitis on college campuses since 2011.
Patti Wukovits, an oncology nurse in Long Island, N.Y., knows all too well the devastating effects of meningitis B.
In 2012, her 17-year-old daughter, Kimberly Coffey, came home from school feeling under the weather. By morning, she had developed intense back pain and purple spots all over her body, signaling an infection in her bloodstream.
“I had never heard of meningitis B, so I had no idea my daughter wasn’t protected even though she had received the meningitis MenACWY vaccine,” Wukovits said. “Now people can protect their children.”
Kimberly, a radiant actress and singer who dreamed of becoming a pediatric nurse, lost her battle against the disease after nine days in the hospital. She was buried in her prom dress just two days before her high school graduation.
“There is not one hour that goes by that I don't think about her,” Wukovits said.
In her daughter’s honor, Wukovits founded The Kimberly Coffey Foundation, which works to educate the public and healthcare professionals about bacterial meningitis and the importance of full immunization with two types of meningococcal vaccines: MenACWY and MenB
“There are so many vaccines being developed,” Wukovits said. “So many different diseases we can't prevent right now. But someday, we'll be able to.”
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PHOTO OF Dr. SEAN PALFREY BY NICOLAUS CZARNECKI