As parents of a child lost to a vaccine-preventable disease, we are true believers in the protection that vaccinations provide.

For our family, the importance of immunization is always uppermost in our minds.

Our son, Jerry Greenwell Jr., died in April 2003 of meningococcal septicemia, a form of meningitis. He went from healthy adult to his deathbed in two days’ time.

When he got sick, he thought he had the flu, but the meningococcal disease swiftly sapped his strength, caused pain and swelling in his legs and, eventually, doctors induced a coma in treating him.

Meningitis knows no boundaries. It is highly contagious and strikes with terrifying speed and consequences. Roughly 10 percent of victims die, often hours after symptoms set in, and about 15 percent of those who survive are left with brain damage, hearing loss or amputation of limbs.

Maine has an average of eight cases per year. However, nationally there has been a significant increase in the number of adolescents and young adults killed or disabled by meningococcal disease — young people who were seemingly healthy, vibrant and, often, athletic.

Most families, as was mine, were unaware of a vaccine that could have saved their child’s life or their anguish from its devastating consequences.

Since losing our son to this horrific disease, we are committed to do all we can to share our message.

We feel that it is particularly timely as this is the start of a new academic year, and families across the country are busy preparing to send their children back to school. However, many forget to check one simple thing that can help keep their children safe: Are they up to date on all recommended adolescent vaccines, including meningococcal?

Preteens and adolescents are at greater risk for meningococcal disease, but the majority of these cases can potentially be prevented through vaccination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends meningococcal vaccination for all adolescents 11 through 18 years of age, ideally at their 11- to 12-year-old check-up. Vaccination is also recommended for other people at increased risk for the disease, including college freshmen living in dormitories.

Meningococcal disease is just one of many serious and potentially life threatening diseases that can affect adolescents and young adults.

Even if immunized in early childhood or infancy, preteens still need certain vaccines to stay protected into adulthood, such as tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), human papillomavirus (which causes cervical cancer in women) and influenza (flu). In addition, children who missed vaccines or were only partially immunized as infants need “catch-up” vaccines at age 11-12.

In Maine, pertussis is most common among adolescents, followed by infants younger than one year of age who are too young to have received all of their shots. Pertussis has been reported in all 16 counties in Maine, and outbreaks have occurred, particularly among school-age children.

More information about vaccines is available at the National Meningitis Association’s website: It is our hope that others will help us educate the public about the importance of immunization.

Such knowledge just might help save the life of another.

Jerry and Jeri Brooks Greenwell live in Bethel.

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