Meningitis Awareness Day Act Passes 2nd Reading

As I proudly watched via webcast recently Waterloo Liberal MPP Leeanna Pendergast introduce, during Second Reading, Bill 2 the Meningitis Awareness Day Act in the Ontario Legislature – I could not help but be swept up in the historic significance and emotion of the moment.

In a rare show of solidarity uniting members across all party lines, Pendergast’s Bill unanimously breezed through Second Reading on March 13th. Bill 2 designates April 24 as an annual Meningitis Awareness Day to coincide with World Meningitis Awareness Day.

Voices cracked with emotion and eyes moistened as member after member invited to speak to the bill stood up and paid tribute to both Pendergast and Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada founder Kathryn Blain. But just as importantly, many of the members also took the time to publicly educate their colleagues and the viewing public of the main symptoms of invasive meningococcal disease (IMD): fever, stiff neck, headache, vomiting, rash and sensitivity to light.

IMD occurs when bacteria infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord. The meningitis bacteria are spread from person to person through close contact involving secretions from the nose and throat through common actions such as sneezing, kissing, sharing drinks, lipstick / lip balm or utensils for eating. There are five strains of IMD, four of which are preventable with vaccines.

It was the tragic death of one of my former students, Michael Longo (19) in 1995 from IMD which prompted Blain to create the MRFC in 1998.  Another local outbreak in Waterloo Region in 1997 tragically snuffed out the young lives of two other promising bright lights, Michelle Risi (16) and Melissa Maharaja (18) and caused widespread anxiety accompanied by a series of neighbourhood vaccination clinics.

IMD kills approximately 10 per cent of those it attacks, often in a matter of hours, and leaves in its wake one of every five survivors ravaged with lifelong mental and physical ailments such as: blindness, loss of limbs, and hearing impairment. The key to stopping the onslaught of IMD is through prevention (vaccination) and early detection; though its flu-like symptoms make it extremely difficult to detect.

Thankfully, in times of extreme distress, a parent’s gut instinct will often take over and intuitively tell them that something is radically wrong with their child. This is no different in the case of meningitis. A parent should immediately heed their intuition and head with their child to the nearest hospital emergency room or clinic.

The fact that IMD strikes approximately 200 Canadians each year and that the very young (children 2 and under) and adolescent populations are most at risk, was not lost on the MRFC. During the past decade it worked diligently to successfully lobby the Ontario government so that today it includes the meningitis vaccine as part of the routine childhood immunization schedule for all Ontarians, along with vaccines against the two other major common causes of meningitis, Hib and pneumecoccus.

Still, after reflecting on our provincial health system’s disease prevention strategy and the humbling prospect and honour of an annual day to raise awareness of an indiscriminate killer, meningitis, I am reminded of the words of famous Canadian communications professor Marshall McLuhan, “A point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding.”

Despite the establishment of a Meningitis Awareness Day and an overall decline in the past decade of IMD in North America (in part due to provincial immunization programs) it would be foolish for us to let our guard down against this and other insidious infectious diseases. The two-headed spectre of ignorance and misinformation are ever present dangers looming on the horizon.

Truly frightening movements like the small but vocal anti-vaccination lobby, many of whom have been emboldened in recent years by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy (ex-Playboy model and Beverly Hills 90210 star who claimed that her child had developed Autism after being vaccinated) and the now-infamous and thoroughly discredited ‘Andrew Wakefield study’, still linger in the public consciousness.

If unopposed and allowed their fifteen minutes of fame on wildly popular TV programs like Oprah, such irrational fringe groups and their ‘chicken-little like’ mentality threaten to undo, in mere moments, what took decades of pain-staking advancements in medical science to achieve in the war against deadly global infectious diseases such as: polio, tuberculosis, measles, mumps, rubella and meningitis.

Due to Blain’s empathy, tenacity and leadership, millions of Ontarians now have free access to meningitis vaccines that, ironically, would most likely have prevented the untimely death of her only son. By educating one another about meningitis, we take up Blain’s torch, honour her bold vision, the memory of her son and, ultimately, all those families whose innocence has been forever shattered by the indiscriminate, sometimes cruel hand of fate.

Photo: Michael Longo – circa 1994

Related Links:
Press Release, Bill 2, Meningitis Awareness Day Act 2010, Passes 2nd Reading

Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada

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