BETHEL — Last month our legislators took an important step when they issued a joint resolution recognizing April 24, 2014, as World Meningitis Day. In doing so they acknowledged both the seriousness of this deadly disease and the fact that it can be prevented by immunizations.

I know only too well the pain of losing someone I loved to this horrible disease. Eleven years ago, our family suffered a tremendous loss when our son, Jerry, died from meningitis. When we found out that there is a vaccine that could have prevented Jerry’s death, we were devastated.

The reality is that every year, thousands of people in the United States are diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. It can strike quickly and have devastating consequences. Ten to 15 percent of those diagnosed with it die. Of those who survive, one in five live with permanent disabilities such as loss of limbs, brain damage, kidney disease and hearing loss.

The rate of diagnosis and death in Maine reflects the same trend.

Adolescents and young adults have a higher chance of getting meningitis than the rest of the population, and death rates are higher if they do get it. It’s a contagious disease and can spread quickly where there are large groups of people in close quarters, such as dorm rooms and camps.

That’s exactly why the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that children be immunized against the disease first at age 11 or 12, and then with a booster dose at age 16.

But according to the National Meningitis Association, three in 10 U.S. teens have not yet received their first dose and remain unprotected.

Not only does the vaccine help prevent people from getting meningitis, but it also kills the bacteria for those who carry it. Think that can’t be your child? About 10 percent of people carry the bacteria in their nose, their throat or both and don’t get sick, but they can pass it to others.

It is vital that parents follow the recommended immunization schedule by providing immunity early in life, before they are exposed to this potentially life-threatening disease – thus protecting not only the health of their children but also that of their classmates and the community. Remember, a vaccine not given is 100 percent ineffective!

One of the most frightening things about meningitis is that it’s not always easy to diagnose right away. It often presents as the flu, a headache, a stiff neck, nausea, a rash or even sensitivity to light.

It progresses with alarming speed and within days, even hours, can cause death. So making sure that your child has the best protection possible, before it’s too late, is of critical importance. Just ask anyone who has lost a child to this disease, or someone who has lost his or her arms and legs because of it.

Vaccines have been hugely successful in preventing diseases.

Yet a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Pediatrics found nearly half (48.7 percent) of children in the United States are undervaccinated.

An estimated 35 million children fail to receive at least one of the vaccines recommended by the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, leading to only half of teenagers getting immunized against meningitis and other harmful diseases.

Maine has already seen one child die from meningitis this year.

The resolution recommending all residents to be immunized against this horrendous disease is a step in the right direction. But it’s only the first step.

Maine is among 17 states that require families to be educated about the risks, to themselves and others, associated with going unvaccinated.

But that doesn’t go far enough. Twenty-four other states have laws in place mandating that teens and young adults be immunized against meningitis.

It’s time for Maine to go all the way and do the same, before another parent has to bury a child. 

— Special to the Press Herald

Correction: This column was changed at 10:40 a.m. on May 9, 2014, to reflect the correct name of the National Meningitis Association.