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Stop a disease that can kill quickly

Patti Wukovits with daughter Kimberly Coffey, who died

Patti Wukovits with daughter Kimberly Coffey, who died of bacterial meningococcal disease shortly before her 2012 high school graduation. Credit: Wukovits Family

I read the news of two more meningitis B cases on a New York university campus on Groundhog Day — and like Bill Murray in the movie, it feels as if we relive this scenario over and over.

This time, it’s Columbia University. But it’s been elsewhere: including Syracuse, Princeton, and the University of Oregon. This list grows despite the fact that vaccines are available to fight this disease. Yes, meningitis B is preventable and has been since 2014, but not enough of our young people are being vaccinated. It’s time for that to change.

For many — including my daughter, who died after contracting meningitis B — it’s too late. But we need to prevent even one more case from happening. That starts with New York adding the meningitis B vaccine to the list of required immunizations students need before attending college.

In 2012, when my 17-year-old daughter, Kimberly, was a senior at East Islip High School with her whole life in front of her, she came down with what we thought was the flu. I’m a nurse, and my kids have always been up to date on their vaccines, including meningitis. So, when she turned gravely ill and the emergency room doctors at Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center in West Islip told me they suspected meningitis, I told them they were wrong. Kim had been vaccinated. But she hadn’t been vaccinated against meningitis B because the vaccination wasn’t available yet.

Kim had been vaccinated with the typical meningitis vaccine, which covers only four strains of the disease. And still today, that’s likely the only protection most college kids have, and it’s not enough, as the recent meningitis B cases prove. Parents and students need to be aware that they need to ask for the specific meningitis B vaccination to be fully protected against all strains of the disease.

But beyond awareness, we need to make these vaccines standard practice. I’ve been to Albany more times than I can count to try and impress upon our state lawmakers how critical it is that New York add the meningitis B vaccine to its list of required vaccinations. Only with that do we have a shot at keeping this disease off New York campuses and from losing more lives to a preventable disease. The threat is real: Meningitis B has been responsible for 100 percent of the meningitis outbreaks on our college campuses since 2011.

And a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comparing the rate of infection for meningitis B in college students with non-students has determined that college students are 3.54 times more likely to become infected.

When the meningitis B vaccines became available in 2014, I was overjoyed. Finally, we could put an end to the suffering and death that this disease causes. But here we are five years later, and kids are still getting sick, and some are dying.

We’re letting this disease win every day we don’t have strict vaccine requirements for meningitis B. State lawmakers must step up and require complete meningitis vaccination for every student attending college in New York. We need to protect our children with both meningitis vaccines — the MenACWY vaccine plus the MenB vaccine.

I watched as this terrible disease robbed my daughter of her life. In just a few short days, she went from being a vibrant teenager to dying a horrific death. I’ve made it my life’s work not to let another parent go through that experience. My daughter’s life mattered. Our children’s lives matter.

Patti Wukovits is a registered nurse and executive director of the Kimberly Coffey Foundation in Massapequa Park.