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Actor and advocate Molly Ringwald is using her voice to raise awareness about the dangers of meningococcal meningitis, and how a second dose of the vaccine at age 16 can provide powerful protection against it. Photography courtesy of National Meningitis Association
  • Meningococcal meningitis is a rare but deadly contagious disease that can develop quickly and cause death within a day.
  • Teenagers and young adults are at increased risk of developing it.
  • Molly Ringwald is using her popularity as a teen idol to spread awareness about protecting teenagers with the meningococcal vaccine.

Molly Ringwald will forever stay 16 to many movie lovers. Her roles in iconic films like “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club” brought a relatable side of teenage life to the big screen.

Now, as a mom to a teenager and two pre-teens, Ringwald is using her stardom to bring awareness to meningococcal meningitis, a rare but serious infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

She partnered with The 16 Vaccine campaign, launched by the National Meningitis Association and Sanofi, to talk about how vaccination is the best defense against meningococcal meningitis, and the importance of receiving the second dose of the MenACWY vaccine at age 16.

“I felt like it was a natural fit… one of the great things about being so well known for these movies is that I really do have a platform to talk about meningococcal meningitis, which most people don’t even think about. Particularly after this year everyone has been through, it’s not really on anyone’s radar,” Ringwald told Healthline.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that childhood vaccination rates are down across the United States due to the pandemic.

“Vaccines are a vital part of child healthcare because they prevent some of the most serious infections. A child who misses a vaccine remains vulnerable and at risk indefinitely, even into adulthood,” Dr. Robert Amler, dean of New York Medical College School of Health Sciences and Practice and a former CDC chief medical officer, told Healthline. “If your child’s regular schedule has lapsed, don’t panic, but catch up as soon as you can.”

The CDC recommends routine MenACWY vaccination for adolescents starting at ages 11 to 12 with a second dose at age 16.

While anyone at any age can get meningococcal meningitis, teenagers and young adults are at increased risk.

The bacteria that cause it can be transmitted via saliva, like through kissing, coughing, sharing beverages, or even cosmetics. People living in crowded settings like college dorms or military barracks are also at increased risk.

“We know teens are going to parties, they’re sharing water bottles, they’re kissing, and also probably having less sleep than they should, which brings their immune system down,” Leslie Maier, president of the National Meningitis Association, told Healthline.

Although rare, meningococcal meningitis can develop quickly and cause death within a day. Even with treatment, 10 to 15 percent of people who contract the infection die from it, according to the National Meningitis Association. Of survivors, around 19 percent live with permanent disabilities, such as brain damage, hearing loss, loss of kidney function, or limb amputations.

Maier learned about the consequences of meningococcal meningitis after losing her healthy 17-year-old son, Chris, to it in 2005.

Two weeks before he died, Chris scored the winning goal to help his high school soccer team win the Arizona state championship.

“We were all on top of the world. A lot of the boys were seniors like Chris, so I was so happy for them. Little did we know that 2 weeks later he was going to die,” Maier said.

Leading up to that game, Chris traveled back and forth between his hometown, Tucson, to Phoenix for the state tournament.

“There were night games and he’d get home about 12:00 to 12:30 and get up for school at 7:00 the next day, so part of what led to him being more susceptible to meningococcal meningitis was that he was getting run down from all the trips to Phoenix,” Maier said.

About 10 days after the championship game, Chris went snowboarding in Colorado with friends. When he came home, he went to school, where he developed a headache.

Still, after school, he decided to go to soccer practice with the University of Arizona, where he was going to play on the club team in the fall. However, the coach noticed how ill he seemed and sent him home.

“He did have a fever and a headache, and he took a bath because he couldn’t get warm. I did ask if he wanted to go to the urgent care and he said no, he just wanted to go to bed, and I thought that was normal… because I thought he had the flu,” Maier said.

Chris woke up uncomfortable throughout the night. The next day he agreed to go to the doctor.

“[As] he was preparing to go to the doctor, his dad found him lying on his bed and he asked, ‘Why aren’t you ready?’ Chris said, ‘Dad, I can’t feel my feet,’ and then he became unconscious,” Maier said.

At the hospital, doctors determined Chris had meningococcal meningitis.

“We had no idea what that was but we could see that Chris was crashing, and when they tried to resuscitate him his fingers and ears were becoming purple,” Maier said. “We had to tell all the people who were working on him that it was all right to let our son go because we knew he was not going to survive.”

Before that day, she did not know about meningococcal meningitis.

“I never knew there was a disease that could take a healthy child in less than 24 hours,” Maier said.

At the time Chris got sick, the meningitis vaccine had just been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but it was only recommended for kids in college.

“I don’t want any family to go through what our family went through. This is a rare disease, but it can be deadly. People don’t have to lose their children or have their children live with debilitating disabilities. Chris died when he was 17, and had he gotten that second dose at 16, I really believe he would be alive now and living a good life,” Maier said.

Although the CDC recommends the second dose of MenACWY at age 16, only about half of eligible teens have received it.

“You really think a lot about vaccinations and immunizations when you have babies… I feel like I knew everything when I was a young mother, I was on top of it,” Ringwald said.

“When you’re a parent of a teenager, you’re thinking ‘Oh my God, they’re going to be driving soon’ or ‘Which college are we looking at?’ and we’re not thinking about the fact that they really need to get this crucial second shot of the MenACWY vaccine,” she said.

Since teaming up with Maier to bring awareness, Ringwald said the need to keep her children up to date on vaccinations has never been clearer.

“[Leslie and I have] been doing interviews together and I can’t help but tear up every single time she talks about [Chris], because as a parent, it’s your worst nightmare. For me, knowing there is this way that I can protect my kids — there is so much we can’t control, but vaccinating our kids against these diseases is something we can do,” Ringwald said.

On The 16 Vaccine campaign website, you can sign up to schedule an email reminder for when your children are due for their second dose of MenACWY.

Amler recommends asking your doctor to check your child’s vaccination record.

“When in doubt, a repeat dose is typically harmless and way better than remaining vulnerable without the vaccine. There are very few reasons to defer vaccinating an otherwise healthy child. In most cases, even a child with a cold, headache, or upset stomach without fever can still be vaccinated the same day,” he said.

In addition to receiving the two doses of MenACWY, Amler notes that teens and young adults between ages 16 and 23 can get the meningitis B vaccine for extra protection against different types of meningococcal disease.

“[The] two different meningitis vaccines are available and effective against many, but not all, types of meningitis,” he warned.

Whether it’s looking at information provided by the National Meningitis Association, The 16 Vaccine campaign, or your doctor, Ringwald said finding reputable information is the best way to keep your children safe.

“I think it’s really important that parents are educated about this because it’s still our responsibility — before our kids grow up and go to college or move on with their lives — that they are protected so they can have a nice, long, healthy life,” she said.