Dr. Jennifer Shaer of Dix Hills shared the shock of other parents last week when her daughter, Samantha, a counselor at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pennsylvania, texted her that an 11-year-old camper had suddenly died.
Shaer has more insight than most into a child dying of Neisseria meningitidis, often referred to as meningococcus, a bacteria that can cause meningitis and a systemwide infection called sepsis. In addition to being a pediatrician and chief medical officer for Allied Physicians Group’s 22 Long Island offices, she was a camp doctor at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah for one week each summer for five years. This is the first summer she hasn’t participated as a physician.
“It’s a parent’s worst nightmare,” Shaer says. “You send your kid to camp and expect to see them at visiting day.”
But parents of kids at Nah-Jee-Wah — or any other sleepaway camp — shouldn’t panic, Shaer says. “Sleepaway camp isn’t considered high risk,” Shaer says. The bacteria spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as saliva. “It’s not really as contagious as the flu that goes through the air,” Shaer says. Kids should be reminded not to share drinks and to practice hygiene techniques such as frequent hand washing, she says.
Children can be vaccinated against meningitis. The vaccine that protects against the A, C, W135 and Y strains is given before seventh and 12th grades, she says. The meningitis B vaccine is offered before kids leave for college, because close-quarters dorm living puts them at a higher risk, she says.
The child who died was younger than the vaccination protocol — a rising sixth grader. Concerned parents can talk to their pediatricians about giving the vaccination earlier, Shaer says. Shaer gave the vaccine to her daughter a year early, before she started sleepaway camp at age 10, she says.