Mich. mom pushes universities to require meningitis B vaccine

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Alicia Stillman holds a photo of her daughter Emily Stillman, who died of bacterial meningitis in 2013.

A Michigan mom who had to take her two children on a bus to Canada for the meningitis vaccine is pleading for others to inoculate their kids with the drug that's now readily available in the U.S.

The vaccine wasn't approved in the United States in 2013, when Alicia Stillman's daughter died of the disease. It was approved for use in 2014, and now Stillman is out to make sure parents are aware of how to avert the risk. 

"I remember taking the buses to Canada to get my other two children vaccinated because it wasn't approved in the U.S. yet. If it had, my daughter would still be here pursuing her dreams," said Stillman. 

Stillman of West Bloomfield wants students at Big 10 universities to be vaccinated against meningitis, a disease that can quickly kill.

Stillman doesn't want any other families to go through what her family has faced. In 2013, Emily Stillman, 19, the second of her three children, called her mom, complaining of a headache. Thinking it could be the flu, Stillman told Emily, a sophomore at Kalamazoo College, to take a pain reliever and rest. 

"I told her to take some Motrin and she went to bed," said Stillman. "The next morning, I assumed everything was OK, and then I got a call from the university, who had taken her to the hospital, and I started my two-hour drive to Kalamazoo."

By the time Stillman arrived at the hospital, her daughter was in a coma. Within hours, she had died of bacterial meningitis. 

"The whole time I thought, 'There's no way; she was vaccinated'," said Stillman. "Turns out, there was no vaccine for meningitis B available in the U.S., but there is now." 

In 2015, her son Zachary was getting ready to head to the University of Michigan, a year after her daughter Karly graduated from there. That's when she launched the Emily Stillman Foundation to raise awareness about the meningitis vaccine.  

More: Stillman'sColumn: Meningitis B vaccine is critical

Meningitis B is spread through saliva and nose secretions, putting college students at particular risk because of the communal settings, she said.

Symptoms include fever; nausea and vomiting; a severe and persistent headache; a stiff neck; joint pain; confusion or other mental changes; sensitivity to light; and a red or purple skin rash which does not fade when pressure is applied to the skin. Symptoms can appear quickly or over several days and kill within hours. 

Healthcare organizations joined Stillman's effort on Monday, asking administrators at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University to require students be vaccinated. 

"Meningitis B is a deadly disease that’s especially dangerous for college students, but it can be prevented," said Betty Chu, president of the Michigan State Medical Society. "Students and young adults are among those most likely to contract meningitis B, especially in settings where students are living in close proximity to each other and sharing drinks and food.

"U of M and MSU should take a critical step to protect their students by requiring a simple, lifesaving vaccination."

This spring, Indiana University and Purdue University became the first Big 10 schools to require a meningitis B vaccination. Stillman launched the Big 10 Challenge to get all universities involved.

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University recommend students receive the vaccine but said it will not be made mandatory. 

Not mandating vaccination will leave young adults exposed, Stillman said.

"My world changed forever the day I lost my daughter to meningitis," said Stillman. "This is something we have to enact now because there is no cure."

Emily Skillman

Cases of meningitis reached a historic low in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Each year, 1,000 people contract a form of meningococcal disease in the United States. Since 2013, 46 college campuses have reported cases of meningococcal disease. Among those who become infected, 10 percent to 15 percent will die. A further 20 percent of survivors will have permanent disabilities including brain damage, loss of limbs, hearing loss and/or other serious impacts to the nervous system, according to the CDC.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has sent letters and information to colleges and universities in the state, asking them to update their school’s immunization policies to include mandatory meningitis B and other vaccines.

Emily Stillman was a theater and psychology major, her mother said, whose dream was to be on "Saturday Night Live." 

"She was so funny, but my husband and I told her she had to have a backup plan, which was psychology," said Stillman. "She was special; people gravitated around her. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we'd be here now without her."


Twitter: @SarahRahal_