Woodland Hills girls learn about dangers of meningitis

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It wasn’t a traditional assembly that sixth- and seventh-grade girls in the Woodland Hills School District attended recently. The session on female health issues also provided extensive information on the danger of meningitis.

The disease is caused by inflammation of a protective membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. Adolescents and teenagers have the highest rate of meningococcal disease.

The Nov. 21 event to promote awareness of the disease and the use of vaccines to combat it was sponsored by Voices of Meningitis, a national coalition of school nurses that includes nurses from Woodland Hills as well as representatives of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship-Pittsburgh, which selects graduate students from a variety of fields to address health issues.

Among those attending were Nancy Fang, a medical student at the University of Pittsburgh; Elizabeth Miller, a physician who is chief of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC; Janice Walter, a school nurse at the district’s Shaffer Elementary School; and Bob Werner of Wisconsin, a father whose daughter died of meningitis.

“The reason for the assembly was to raise awareness for parents and students,” Ms. Walter said.

The serious bacterial infection can claim a life in one day.

According to Ms. Walter, the average person is unaware that not only is it important to get a shot of the vaccine around age 11 but also to get a booster shot before the age of 18.

“Everybody agreed that the message needs to be sent to everyone. We want people to go out and tell other people,” Ms. Walter said.

Many 15- to 24-year-olds share items with each other — such as lipstick, lip balm, water bottles, pizza or other food — which is a main contributor to the spread of meningitis.

Mr. Werner’s story of his daughter’s death had an impact on the audience.

“During Mr. Werner’s presentation, there wasn’t a dry eye,” Ms. Walter said.

Becky Werner was 20 years old when she was stricken in 2004.

She was a typical young adult. She kept in shape and coached a youth volleyball team. She enjoyed life.

“She was daddy’s little girl that I got to spoil for 20 years,” said Mr. Werner, who runs the Becky Werner Meningitis Foundation in Wisconsin.

“She woke up on a Tuesday morning having flu-like symptoms and it stayed that way — liver and blood pressure problems and her kidneys shut down. It all happened very quickly,” said Mr. Werner, who runs the Becky Werner Meningitis Foundation in Wisconsin.

“Sadly, most people do not know about the booster needed to prevent meningitis that students between the ages of 16 and 18 should all receive,” he said. “Allegheny County should be commended to have a requirement for the students to receive the booster by age 17. Not every county makes it a requirement.”

Before she died, she talked about how she wanted to train her golden retriever, Rocky, to be a guide dog to help people with disabilities. Her parents fulfilled her wish, and Rocky is now certified as a service animal.

“When I think about Becky, I think about her smile,” Mr. Werner said. “Every morning she gave me a ‘daddy hug,’ and that was pretty special. She and I had a special bond.”

The Woodland Hills nurses who planned this assembly are trying to set up a similar program for boys in the district.

Details: voicesofmeningitis.org; www.schweitzerfellowship.org.

Josh King, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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