Olympian swims to raise awareness on meningitis

LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. – They say that knowledge is power, and that spreading knowledge is powerful. When former Olympian Dara Torres, father Bob Werner, as well as a medical expert gather here at a local high school, they hope to do just that; spread knowledge and raise awareness to support the “Voices of Meningitis” campaign.

Voices of Meningitis is a disease prevention campaign from the National Association of School Nurses. Joined together as a health initiative, these nurses strive to educate and motivate parents to protect their teens and speak with their teen’s health care provider about the importance of vaccination. Although rare, meningococcal disease is a serious infection that includes meningitis, which can potentially cause death or disability in an otherwise healthy teen, within 24 hours.

Torres, 12-time Olympic medalist in swimming, joins the campaign for the second year to educate other parents and to help raise awareness through a series of events in LA, Atlanta, Chicago, and New York. Torres swims 24 laps to symbolize the 24 hours that it can take for meningitis to take a life.

“I am honored to be traveling across the country on behalf of the Voices of Meningitis campaign so as to educate parents and teens about meningococcal meningitis prevention. It’s been fun being able to swim with the kids, too. They’re all fast and say ‘I want to beat an Olympian!'” says Torres

Being an iconic athletic figure and a mother herself, I asked Torres what she aims to teach her children and why this cause is important to her. “Being a mother, I strive to teach my kids not to worry about what everyone else is doing, and just concentrate on yourself. When I was in college, I actually had an experience where someone caught the disease and we all had to be quarantined and vaccinated. It wasn’t until years after though that I had learned more about the disease. Two out of three moms aren’t aware, and that’s why I am here.”

Bob Werner and his wife tragically lost their daughter Becky, to meningococcal meningitis. After hearing their story, it was evident that this disease was difficult to diagnose, because it’s most common symptoms-fever, headache, and muscle pain, are similar to those of the flu. “Becky was 20 years old and going to school. On Tuesday morning she woke up feeling sick. We took her to the hospital first thing the next morning, and they immediately started running tests, but the infection was basically attacking her body. By 5 p.m. we learned that she had meningitis, and by 9 p.m. that night she was gone,” says Werner.

Knowing what had just happened to Becky, Werner and his family took action in order to stay clear of the infection. ”The disease is contagious so we all got antibiotics right away and further down the road got vaccinated. It happens so fast. That’s why it’s important to get vaccinated,” says Werner.

Shortly after the passing of their daughter, Bob Werner and his wife started talking to others on the importance of getting vaccinated and the reality of the situation. “We didn’t know about the vaccine; we’re just typical parents and Becky was a typical kid, and if we didn’t know about it, that means other parents don’t either.”

Medical expert Linda Gibbons advises that vaccination is crucial in infection prevention. ”To help protect against meningococcal disease, the Centers for Disease Control recommends routine vaccinations of adolescents 11 through 18. A single-dose of vaccine should be administered at 11 or 12 years of age, with a booster dose at 16 years of age. Adolescence and young adults are at greater risk for contracting the disease, which can potentially be prevented through vaccination.

I asked Gibbons how teenagers and young adults can get the infection and the best way to prevent the disease. “Certain lifestyles are thought to put adolescents at greater risk for infection, including: sharing drinking glasses, water bottles, kissing, living in close quarters (e.g. dormitories, sleep-away camps.) The vaccination is the best protection, and has been available for years although not required. Moms should talk to their child’s school nurse or health care provider about meningococcal meningitis prevention or to schedule a vaccination appointment.”

Although rare, meningococcal meningitis can be prevented and anyone is eligible for vaccination. For more information, please feel free to visit www.VoicesofMeningitis.org, and share in the knowledge. There are resources for health care professionals and parents.

Photo: Swimmers surround Dara Torres during her trip to the Chicago area to raise awareness about meningitis (VoicesOfMeningitis.org).