AUGUSTA — It has been almost 15 years since Jerry Greenwell Jr., a lively 23-year-old with a bright future, woke up with what seemed like the flu.

But his condition quickly worsened as rashes appeared on his legs and he became unable to walk. In no time, he was at the emergency room in critical condition. Then he was gone.

Hit with meningococcal meningitis, the Portland restaurant worker’s life “quickly slipped away” as his family from Bethel stood by helplessly, his mother told lawmakers recently.

Jeri Brooks Greenwell spoke in support of a bill that would require the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education to adopt rules to mandate that students between ages 11 and 20 receive a vaccine that largely prevents meningococcal meningitis, commonly called bacterial meningitis.

The measure’s sponsor, Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, testified before the Committee on Health and Human Services that the meningococcal bacteria “lives in the nose and throat and rarely, mostly in adolescents and young adults, becomes invasive, entering the blood and the fluid surrounding the brain called the meninges,” causing infections.

About one in 10 who contract the disease die, she said, and survivors often suffer long-term health problems.

“It is certainly worth preventing,” said Hymanson, a neurologist who serves as co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

The associations representing Maine’s school boards and superintendents have strongly endorsed the bill as a way to keep students safer by impeding the spread of the disease. There is already a state rule requiring the vaccine for college students.

Nobody testified against the proposal, but there are some vaccine skeptics who do not trust medical professionals or others who think the decision ought rest in the hands of parents rather than be dictated by government.

The vaccine is recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many medical authorities dedicated to improving public health.

Maine typically has one of the highest voluntary kindergarten opt-out rates for school-mandated vaccines. Although vaccines are required for entry to school, parents can opt out on philosophic or religious grounds simply by signing a form. Attempts to make it more difficult for parents to opt out were defeated in 2015 when the Legislature failed to override a veto by Gov. Paul LePage.

Sarah Calder, director of government affairs for MaineHealth, a nonprofit health-care provider, told lawmakers Maine is “one of only 17 states without a meningococcal vaccination requirement for school entry.”

She said 82 percent of those between ages 13 and 17 were vaccinated with one or more doses of the meningococcal vaccine, a rate that puts Maine behind 25 other states and last in New England.

Hymanson recalled a case she treated about five years ago when a University of New Hampshire student landed in the emergency room after feeling ill in the morning. By the time Hymanson saw her, the student was “in a coma, with a rash and high fever.”

Before she laid eyes on the girl, Hymanson said she suspected meningococcal meningitis as the cause.

The diagnosis confirmed with a spinal tap, Hymanson ordered antibiotics and waited.

Fortunately, the student awoke after her ordeal, exhausted but otherwise back to normal.

Not everyone is so lucky. About 500 people die of the disease annually in the United States, many of them young. Thousands more experience long-term health problems.

Greenwell said that when her son died, “we were shattered to learn that this disease is potentially vaccine preventable.”

“Our lack of knowledge then, and our continuing efforts now, are even more exasperating when one considers the fact that our state has the power to prevent such a tragedy from happening to other families,” she told legislators.

“While it is important for you to review all sides, I urge you to listen to those representing the primary care practices, health systems, insurers, public health advocates, pharmaceutical companies, and those whose lives have been affected by meningococcal disease and why this legislation is so very important,” Greenwell said.

Calder said cases and outbreaks of these diseases place a large social, emotional and financial burden on the patients, their families, the community and state and health-care system resources. Even one case can lead to a cascade response by state and local authorities, including those of the public health and education communities.”

This month, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Oregon State University are coping with outbreaks of the disease, something that has not happened in Maine in years. Maine typically sees only a handful of isolated cases annually.

The state’s health and human services department said it backs the intent of Hymanson’s bill, but has asked it use grade levels rather than age because these would align better with existing procedures.

It said the proposal “could be rewritten to require that meningococcal vaccine be required for students entering, advancing or transferring into grades seven through 12,” instead of citing specific ages.

Calder said that when adolescents and teens” contract these vaccine-preventable diseases, they spread quickly and place high-risk individuals, such as babies, seniors and those with compromised immune systems in danger.”

Greenwell said it is a crucial issue.

“For those electing not to immunize their children, they leave others susceptible to unnecessary health risks,” she said. “That is why it is vital that we follow the recommended immunization schedule established by the CDC by providing immunity early in life, before they are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases.”

“l hope we will require this protective, safe vaccine for our youth,” Hymanson said. “It will prevent tragedy.”

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