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Despite deadly risk, few Oklahoma teenagers get immunized against meningitis


Nicole Hill August 13th, 2010

The Oklahoma City County Health Department and Oklahoma County Immunization Coalition will offer free immunizations from 9 a.m. to noon Aug. 14 at four locations.

Neisseria_meningitidis
Amanda Moran was two days away from heading off to the University of Central Oklahoma when she started feeling sick.

Her doctors thought she had the flu. Then again, maybe it was anxiety from moving away to college. Or it even could have been overexertion from lifeguarding all week. Whatever it was, it was nothing that couldn't be fixed with a prescription or two and some rest.

Moran wasn't as sure.

"Something just kept telling me, 'This isn't right,'" she said. "I really felt like my body was shutting down."

She was right. Within a day, Moran was in a Lawton hospital diagnosed with meningitis, after her mother had found her unresponsive in her bed.

That was 2003. Today, Moran, the Oklahoma City-County Health Department and the School Nurse Organization of Oklahoma are lending their voices to the "Voices of Meningitis" campaign, in an effort to raise awareness of meningococcal disease and boost the state's sagging vaccination record. 

The Centers for Disease Control and other medical groups across the country recommend vaccination for children ages 11-18, and meningococcal immunization is required for entry into Oklahoma colleges. Nevertheless, only 25 percent of Oklahoma teenagers ages 13-17 have been immunized.

The CDC's goal is a 90-percent immunization rate for that age group. Oklahoma's 25.1 percent puts the state 45th in the nation, said Paula Wall, immunization field consultant for the Oklahoma City County Health Department.

"We find that a lot of parents think, 'Oh, well, my child was vaccinated against this disease,'" Moran said. "And they weren't. It's not a required vaccine, only recommended, which is very unfortunate."

As part of the back-to-school push, the Oklahoma City County Health Department and Oklahoma County Immunization Coalition will offer free immunizations from 9 a.m. to noon Aug. 14 at four locations:

" Department of Human Services, 7201 N.W. 10th St.
" Variety Care Clinic, 500 S.W. 44th St.
" Mt. Olive Baptist Church, 1026 N.E. 42nd St.
" Oklahoma City Indian Clinic, 4913 W. Reno

Seven years later, Moran herself still deals with the effects of the bacterial disease: kidney problems, a weak immune system, chronic migraines and vision troubles. She counts herself as blessed just to be alive and with all her limbs intact.

The outbreak in Oologah earlier this year, which killed two children, certainly put the disease at the forefront of the state's collective consciousness, but awareness remains the main problem, Wall said. Statewide, there have been 14 meningitis cases this year, with three of those in Oklahoma County.

This awareness issue is what the campaign means to address.

"One of the things is that we're just going to try to push other school nurses to take it back and emphasize to their parents the availability of the vaccine," said Sharon Howard, SNOO president-elect. "The problem with meningitis is kids just act like they're sick, and then all of a sudden, they're sicker than you've ever seen."

That exact scenario left Moran in a hospital bed fighting for her life against a disease she and her parents thought she'd been protected against.

Now a policy associate and lobbyist for Smart Start Oklahoma, Moran has made meningitis vaccination her own cause. She attracted the attention of the "Voices" campaign because of her previous work fighting the disease. She and State Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, created Oklahoma's Meningitis Awareness Day in 2005, and Moran helped pass a state law mandating meningitis education for middle and high school students.

But the objective of all of these efforts is simple: getting kids into the doctor for immunization.

"A lot of times, if (children are) well, unless they're playing sports, they don't see the doctor," Howard said. "And even if they're playing sports, a lot of times they do physical evaluations and they don't do immunization."

Although they cannot protect against all strains of meningitis, the vaccines available do cover the most common types, Howard said.

"It's a very safe vaccine," she said. "Meningitis, even though we don't see it a lot of it, it can be deadly or have very serious complications if a child gets it. And the vaccine has been around for a very long time, so we know it's safe."

With that in mind, the campaign and health department are teaming up to push immunization before school starts.

"I just don't want anybody to go through what I did, or even worse," Moran said.

For more information, call 425-4404 or visit www.ocic.info. "Nicole Hill
 
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