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The ‘Saved by the Bell’ star is working to raise awareness about how vaccination is the best defense against meningococcal meningitis, a rare, but serious infection that can be fatal. Photo provided by the National Meningitis Association
  • While rare, meningitis is a contagious disease that can develop quickly and cause death within 24 hours.
  • Teenagers and young adults are at increased risk of developing meningococcal meningitis.
  • Tiffani Thiessen is using her popularity to spread awareness about how vaccination can protect pre-teens and teenagers from meningococcal meningitis.

Actress Tiffani Thiessen is known for her teen role on the acclaimed sitcom Saved by the Bell, in which she played beloved Kelly Kapowski, head cheerleader and captain of the volleyball, swim, and softball teams at the fictional Bayside High School.

Today, Thiessen is tapping into the leadership role she played in the 90s to be a cheerleader for kids’ health. She partnered with the campaign It’s About Time: Help Stop the Clock on Meningitis launched by the National Meningitis Association (NMA) and Sanofi, to talk about how vaccination is the best defense against meningococcal meningitis, a rare, but serious infection of the thin lining that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

As a mother of 11- and 7-year-old children, Thiessen is urging fellow parents of pre-teens and teens to help increase rates of potentially life-saving vaccination for meningococcal meningitis.

“I think the biggest desire that I have for my children is for their safety as a mother. The last couple of years…the word vaccination has been very much in the forefront in our world…and it can be frightening; a lot of new stuff has been happening,” Thiessen told Healthline.

However, when her daughter turned 11 this year, she made sure she received the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY), which protects against meningococcal meningitis strains A, C, W, and Y.

“What people don’t understand is that as rare as [meningococcal meningitis] can be…it can be very costly and actually take your child within 24 hours, and to me…it is extremely important that we do anything we can to protect them, and that’s this vaccine,” said Thiessen.

Krystle Beauchamp knows this all too well. She teamed up with Thiessen to share her personal journey with meningococcal meningitis.

During her last semester of college in 2003, Beauchamp woke up feeling ill. As the day progressed, she experienced a severe headache and problems with mobility and vision. She mustered the strength to lie down on a campus bench and call her parents, who happened to be in town. They drove her to an emergency room, where doctors determined she had meningococcal meningitis.

“I was very sick…It’s a rapidly progressive disease. I went from a matter of waking up and not feeling too great to two to three hours later, I could barely walk, I was in pain,” Beauchamp told Healthline.

She remained in the hospital for four weeks while she recovered from damage to her liver, spleen, and gall bladder. She also experienced hearing loss.

“I still deal with some of those effects today, but for so many individuals that contract meningitis we are talking about amputations, loss of limbs, organ failure, brain damage, death, so it’s important to realize that, while I am very lucky, for so many other individuals the outcome is so severe,” said Beauchamp.

At the time, the MenACWY vaccine was not mandatory or routinely recommended by the CDC like it is today.

“Knowing what I know now and having gone through the experience I went through, if I could turn back the clock and use the information I have now, I would 100 precent make sure I was vaccinated,” Beauchamp said.

There are two types of meningococcal vaccines offered in the United States: MenACWY and MenB.

“MenACWY is recommended for all kids and teens age 11 and older, however sometimes they can even be given to younger children if they have a high risk of getting meningococcal disease,” Dr. Vivek Cherian, internal medicine physician in Chicago, told Healthline.

He added that available meningococcal meningitis vaccines have been proven to produce an immune response and provide a degree of protection against meningococcal disease.

“Rates and meningococcal disease have been declining in the United States and remain low today. The available data certainly suggests that the meningitis vaccines help provide protection to those who are vaccinated,” Cherian said.

He noted that the meningococcal vaccine likely does not provide protection to unvaccinated people through population immunity, “so truly the best way to get a level of protection is by being vaccinated,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends routine MenACWY vaccination at times when children are at increased risk—11 to 12 years old, as well as a booster at 16 years old.

Despite the recommendations, nearly one in 10 kids do not receive their first dose and 45 percent do not receive the second dose, leaving them unprotected and vulnerable.

“It’s easier to get 11- to 13-year-olds in to the pediatrician, but hard to get 16- to 17-year-olds in as parents have less control of their teenagers the older they become. So, there is a fall off with getting boosters,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told Healthline.

In addition to the MenACWY vaccine, another meningococcal B vaccine (MenB) is available, which aims to protect against meningococcal B (which has several of its own strains).

However, Schaffner noted that because the occurrence of B is so rare and because currently available B vaccines protect against most but not all of the B strains, the CDC’s advisory committee and the American Academy of Pediatrics made a qualitative decision to tell pediatricians to offer B to patients if they think it’s appropriate.

The CDC does not recommend it as a routine vaccination for healthy people.

“It’s more of a speak with your patients and their parents about whether they want it. Some pediatricians will initiate the conversation and others will wait for parents to bring it up,” said Schaffner.

Because MenACWY is routinely given by pediatricians, check in with yours to ensure your child is up-to-date. If you’re concerned about MenB, talk with your doctor about your concerns.

And for busy parents like Thiessen, she suggested turning to the campaign website where you can sign up to schedule an email reminder for when your children are due for their first and/or second dose of MenACWY.

She also recommended talking to your children about vaccines.

“My daughter is generally one that was very afraid of getting her routine vaccinations done but in the last couple of years because we talked about it so much she’s become a lot more calm about it because she knows they’re there to help protect her,” said Thiessen.

Although Beauchamp isn’t a parent, she lends her story as a cautionary tale for parents to tell.

“So many of my friends who are moms and who [knew me] at the time when I was sick [use my story as a] segue into conversation with their own children about the importance of vaccination and how they know someone who got meningitis,” she said. “[Realizing] that anyone can contract it is what makes that vaccination and first line of defense so important.”