Paralympian and Dancing with the Stars finalist, Amy Purdy, discovered her passion at the age of 15. “I remember seeing a bunch of snowboarders having so much fun and telling my dad I want to try snowboarding.” Her love for the sport led her to pursue a career where she’d have the flexibility to snowboard off-hours. “Obviously,” she says, “things don’t always go as planned.”

A harrowing surprise

“One day I started to feel a little bit sick,” Purdy says. “Within 24 hours I was in the hospital, on life support, and given a two percent chance to live.” The diagnosis was an infection caused by Neisseria meningitidis, a type of bacteria that develops into meningitis. Purdy lost her spleen, the hearing in her left ear, the function of her kidneys, and both of her legs due to septic shock.

Amy’s situation is not an isolated case. “Bacterial meningitis is such a severe infection that even with prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics, 10 to 20 percent of patients die and an equal number of survivors sustain permanent disabilities,” says Dr. Ronald Gold, the Senior Medical Advisor at the Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada. “The best means of prevention is vaccination.”

Purdy’s love of snowboarding pulled her through the harrowing process of healing. “I was so passionate about it that I was determined to learn to snowboard with prosthetic legs,” she says. Her ability to advocate for herself has led to incredible success — Purdy is now the most decorated US Paralympic snowboarder, winning three medals in the last two Paralympic Games, but her advocacy for vaccination has left a more indelible mark on her life.

“You hear about rare diseases and weird things happening to people on Oprah and Dateline and you just never think it’s going to happen to you,” says Purdy, speaking of infections like meningitis. “And then come to find out you actually could’ve protected yourself against it. To me it (vaccination) seems like a no-brainer.”

Addressing gaps in prevention

According to Dr. Gold, the frequency of bacterial meningitis has decreased by over 90 percent in Canada since the introduction of new meningitis vaccines which are now part of the routine immunization programs for children. Vaccines are available for all five of the most common strains of meningitis caused by the meningococcus, however, only four are covered by provincial and territorial health systems. The new Group B meningococcal vaccines are not, leaving many infants, children, teenagers and young adults unprotected and at increased risk.

“The new group B vaccines are being used routinely in England and a few other countries,” says Dr. Gold. “Group B meningococcal disease has decreased markedly there following the introduction of the vaccine.”

More parents must step up to ensure their children live long enough to realize their dreams. Advocating for new treatments and processes are essential to dealing with potentially-fatal infections like meningitis and their side effects. With such a short window — often as little as 24 hours — between infection and potential death, getting vaccinated must be top of mind for all members of the general public.

“When new vaccines are approved by Health Canada, the public should lobby politicians to include them in provincial immunization programs,” says Dr. Gold. “Such lobbying has proven to be very effective in the past.”

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