Column: Meningitis B vaccine is critical

Alicia Stillman

Five years ago this month I lost my daughter, Emily, to meningitis B. Today, I’m encouraging lawmakers in Lansing to take an important step to ensure no one else experiences this kind of heartbreak.

My daughter was a sophomore studying psychology and theater at Kalamazoo College. She had just started her second semester, when she called me complaining about a minor headache. I suggested an aspirin and asked her to let me know how she felt in the morning. That next morning, I received a phone call from the hospital — Emily was already in a coma. She had contracted meningococcal disease and was being rushed into surgery.

My daughter was just 19 when she lost her life to meningitis B. Emily had been vaccinated for meningitis, but was never vaccinated and protected against meningitis B. A vaccine for meningitis B was not yet available in the United States.

That vaccine is available now, and it is recommended for young adults, especially college-aged students who live in communal settings like dorms and apartments, and who may share glasses, bottles, kitchen utensils and other items.

In recent years, the state of Michigan has taken important steps, asking colleges and universities to update their campus immunization policies and to make educational materials on the lifesaving meningitis B vaccines available for students and their parents.

It’s time they take the next step and fully protect students by making the simple immunization a requirement on campus. It’s a move that will save lives, and one that will save families.

For most students, at least a couple of years of college are spent living in small dorm rooms packed with roommates. One downside of cramped quarters and communal living is that students in such close proximity, who share so much, could also be sharing sickness. The potentially rapid spread of illness is the reason why it is so important for students to be fully vaccinated.

There are five distinct groups of vaccine-preventable meningitis. The common vaccine that most children receive at age 11 and again at 16 or 17 (MenACWY) only protects against four of the five groups and still leaves a risk for contracting meningitis b. A separate vaccine was created to specifically protect against the group B strain — meningitis B. In order for students to be protected, they must receive the second vaccination series.

Nearly every year this disease claims the lives of children or young adults. Ours wasn’t the only family five years ago to experience the pain of losing a child to meningitis. The disease also took the life of Kimberly Coffey, a 17-year-old high school student.

We’re working as hard as we can to save lives and to ensure no other mother has to experience the pain we live with daily. I hope policymakers at the capitol will do their part, as well. They already require a variety of immunizations for students in the K-12 system, because they know immunizations save lives. They should do the same when it comes to protecting college and university students from meningitis B.

Alicia Stillman is the director of the Emily Stillman Foundation.