Dad urges meningococcal vaccinations following death of son

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — While half of University of Oregon undergraduates skipped the recommended vaccination against the deadly type B meningococcal disease, one Oregon father drove his son to Canada to get the vaccination last fall before he began attending Oregon State University.

“I’m not sending him off to a dorm without it, that’s for sure,” said Scott Parkhurst, a Clackamas County resident who got the Canada-visit idea from a TV show.

A mother in Michigan, meanwhile, took a busload of students to Ontario for meningococcal vaccinations.

To some, Parkhurst may sound a little overprotective to go to such extremes to get the meningococcal shot for his son.

But Parkhurst started 2014 with two sons: Jeff and Jake, who were best friends and soulmates, their father said.

Parkhurst ticked off facts about Jake, the younger of the two:

“Seventeen-year-old junior at Central Catholic High School, A-student, swim team, strong, 6 foot, a couple hundred pounds. A good strong kid,” he said.

But suddenly, on March 3, 2014, the family found itself in an emergency room with Jake, hearing a doctor say he probably had meningococcal disease and might die.

“In 36 hours,” his dad said, “he went from feeling sick to dead.”

So Parkhurst went to Victoria, B.C., to protect his remaining son, Jeff, because the vaccine was not yet available in the United States.

Tuesday, Parkhurst flew to Atlanta to testify before today’s meeting of the Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which is expected to decide whether to make the meningococcal B vaccine routinely available to anyone from middle school age to college age.

So far, the two- or three-part vaccination is available only to high-risk groups, such as people with certain immune disorders or students at a university — such as the UO — where an outbreak has occurred.

Parkhurst — and other parents who have lost children to meningococcal disease — are asking the CDC committee to make the meningococcal B vaccine as regular as the preventive shots for measles and mumps — or at least as available as vaccinations against other strains of meningococcal bacteria, such as groups A, C, Y and W135.

About one in 10 people who get meningococcal disease die, while two of 10 survivors suffer permanent damage to the brain, nervous system or limbs.

“I’ve met people who’ve survived it — no arms, no legs, brain damage, you name it. It breaks your heart — especially when it’s preventable,” Parkhurst said in a phone interview during a layover in Houston on his trip East.

The 15-member CDC advisory committee is made up of public health and medical experts who vet potential vaccinations and establish protocol for their use. The advisory group’s decisions are important because the Affordable Care Act requires insurance companies to cover the full cost of immunizations that the committee recommends — and one full course of meningococcal B shots costs hundreds of dollars.

Some insurance companies are voluntarily covering the full cost for UO students seeking vaccinations in connection with the outbreak, as recommended by state and federal health authorities.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., is urging the advisory committee to make a swift decision and — if the medical conclusions justify — bring the shots to everyone, not only those with means to cover the out-of-pocket costs or those who attend a university with an outbreak.

The National Association of School Nurses has called for wide availability of the vaccinations.

Making the shots available doesn’t necessarily mean that Oregon residents, in particular, will line up to get them.

The state has the nation’s highest rate of parents who decline vaccinations and seek exemptions to public health requirements so that their children can still attend school or day care.

Those children tend to be concentrated in particular parts of the state where vaccinations are unpopular.

Parkhurst said he has gone to Salem and become frustrated because he can’t get lawmakers interested in pushing the meningococcal shots.

“It’s ludicrous that we have a vaccination available now and nobody wants to step up and do the right thing,” he said. “I’m a native Oregonian. I love my state, but I’m really embarrassed by how bad we are on (vaccinations).”

A hotly contested bill — that moved Tuesday out of the Oregon Legislature’s joint subcommittee on human services — would require schools and day cares to publish aggregate information about their vaccination rates.

Opponents to the bill have packed hearing rooms; some said the reporting requirement would create a hostile environment toward unvaccinated children.

Senate Bill 895 now goes to the joint ways and means committee, perhaps as early as Friday.

Parkhurst said he’s baffled by opposition to vaccinations and floored that less than half of UO students have gotten vaccinated in the face of an outbreak that has killed one student and sickened five since January.

The first sign of trouble for his son, Jake, was on a Sunday, when he told his dad he felt sick.

“Yay for puking and 102-degree fever,” he tweeted.

On Monday, his mother took him to urgent care, which administered a high dose of antibiotics and rushed him to a Portland children’s hospital.

After that, Parkhurst said, he saw his son alive one last time.

“Fight for your life,” the father urged. “He nodded back to me, OK, as he was wheeled off to intensive care.”

On Tuesday, he was dead.

“There’s not a day or an hour that goes by when I don’t think about it,” the father said.

“Ask any parent: ‘How would you feel if you lost one of your children? They say, ‘God no. I couldn’t handle it.’ Well, then, vaccinate them.”

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Information from: The Register-Guard, http://www.registerguard.com

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