Not since the 1950s when the development of the Salk, and later Sabin, polio vaccines had citizens lining up by the thousands for protection against the crippling disease, has Ohio seen the response to the meningitis outbreak in Mahoning and Stark counties. As fortunate as it is that this country can marshal the resources to meet the challenge of a potential epidemic, the tragedy is that all the medical science in the world was unable to save the lives of the two West Branch High School students who recently succumbed to meningococcal disease.
Bacteria can be fickle organisms, and only a relative few cause human disease. But Neisseria meningitidis, the bacteria implicated in the local outbreak, can, under the right conditions, be deadly to some people. Others apparently harbor the germ without themselves becoming sick.
The Neisseria bacteria causes both meningitis, a disease of the brain, and meningococcemia, a disease of the blood. The disease is spread by saliva by such means as drinking out of someone else's glass or sharing a fork or spoon. Symptoms include high fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, nausea, vomiting and exhaustion. Because the bacterium is so virulent, unless treatment can be started at the initial onset of symptoms, even effective antibiotics do not have a chance to work.
Over the weekend, residents lined up at local hospitals to receive shots of the antibiotics which are effective for about two or three days.
Vaccination: Today, public health officials expect to vaccinate 5,800 students and staff members from West Branch and Sebring high schools in Mahoning County; Alliance, Marlington and St. Thomas Aquinas is Stark County, and Salem High School in Columbiana County. Because no one vaccine can immunize against all strains of the virus, analysis by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta was needed before the appropriate vaccine could be selected.
For children and their parents, the prospect of coming down with meningococcal disease must be terrifying. They should take heart in the rapid response that state and national public health authorities were able to mount in such a short period of time.
At times like this, we have particular empathy for the children throughout the world who have no such access to health care, who suffer diseases for which there is neither vaccination nor affordable cure.
As scary as the local incidents of meningococcal disease are, parents can still be confident that their children have access to the best treatment possible and that, in this case, the state is funding the needed vaccinations.
Millions of mothers in Africa, however, have neither confidence or even hope as they watch their children dying in infancy of diseases virtually unknown here where clean water is the norm and well-baby care a given.
In impoverished regions throughout the world, what we take for granted is an unimaginable luxury.