It’s been 20 years since my son’s death.
Ryan Wayne was healthy, thriving and only 18 years old when meningitis took his life. His death was sudden, tragic and traumatic, but the thing I’ve dedicated my life to making sure other parents know is that his death was preventable.
After Ryan’s death, I learned of the potentially life-saving meningococcal vaccine. Though it was too late for my son, it isn’t too late for the nearly 1,000 people expected to contract meningococcal disease in the U.S. each year.
Meningitis is a bacterial or viral infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord, often causing inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
As founder and national director of the nonprofit, Meningitis Angels, I’ve worked to create awareness and educate others about the risks of meningitis, and more importantly, it’s prevention. Years of research and countless conversations have revealed a gap in public understanding and action against this dangerous disease.
I was recently in Tulsa meeting with public health and medical professionals to share my personal story and the risk of meningitis that claimed my own child’s life. Among those who know of the disease, many underestimate its reach. Meningitis affects 600 to 1,000 people in the U.S. each year, 21 percent of them 11-24 years old. Fifteen percent of meningococcal disease cases end in death, and a fifth of those who survive are left with life-altering effects like deafness, brain damage and amputation.
In 2010, an outbreak of bacterial meningitis in Oologah claimed the lives of two grade school children and left four others with life-altering disabilities. Those children were not immunized against meningitis because their school and state law didn’t require it.
In spite of following medical recommendations, lives were lost and forever changed because someone brought the disease into their community.
Even in the face of these risks, it’s estimated that 1 in 5 U.S. teens have not even received their first dose of the meningococcal vaccine. If we were to dissect the population of parents who comprise that statistic, we’d likely find a mix of the unaware and the unwilling.
The memories I have of Ryan’s rapid decline and those experienced by the parents in Oologah are not ones I want a parent to ever have the burden of sharing. I don’t want one more parent to be left wondering if their child would still be with them, had they been immunized.
So for those of you who were like me, unaware of the life-saving immunization against meningitis, my hope is that my story will spur you to action. For those of you who are for any reason unwilling for your child to be protected through immunizations, I urge you to reconsider.
Frankie Milley lives in Houston. Meningitis Angels is a partner of the Oklahoma Alliance for Healthy Families.