As a child of the ‘80s, I was pretty ecstatic when an invitation to interview Soleil Moon Frye (AKA, Punky Brewster) appeared in my inbox. I watched “Punky Brewster” religiously as a young girl. Punky’s free, resilient spirit was infectious and darling—not to mention her on-point ‘80s fashion sensibilities. The freckles, the sun hair clips, the pigtails, the mismatched sneakers … oh my!
Although Soleil Moon Frye seemed way older than me as she graced the TV screen, it turns out that she’s only a few years older than me. And, just like me, she’s a mom trying to navigate this crazy world with a couple of kids in tow. Frye’s got four kids, including her almost sixteen-year-old daughter, Poet.
And that’s where our story starts, because the reason for my interview with Frye was not to chat about her iconic red vests and perfectly cuffed jeans, but to discuss an issue pertaining to raising teenagers that she recently became passionate about: the meningitis B vaccine.
It all started with a conversation she had with a good friend, who told her that meningitis B was a serious issue for teens and something she should look into further.
“We were having a conversation, a heart-to-heart, and then I started doing more research and realized that this meningitis B … one of the groups it affects most is 16 to 23 year olds, which I didn’t realize,” Frye tells me.
Honestly, I had no idea either (and I write parenting and health articles for a living!). According to the CDC, there are a few groups of people who are most at risk for contracting meningitis B, including babies under the age of one, people who are immunocompromised, and adolescents, aged 16-23.
The reason for this is that teens and young adults are extremely social, have close contact with one another, and often live in close quarters. In fact, there have been several meningitis B outbreaks at universities over the past few years.
Let’s be clear: meningitis B (and all the other meningitis strains) is no joke. Bacterial meningitis infections are rare, but when they happen, they cause extremely dangerous issues. Meningitis starts with flu-like symptoms but quickly progresses to inflammation of the spinal cord, brain, and can lead to sepsis and death.
Even with treatment, 1 in 10 people who contract meningitis will die. That is absolutely awful.
But, you might be thinking, our kids get vaccinated against meningitis, right? So they’ll be okay, right?
Here’s the thing, though, there are different kinds of meningitis, and while our kids routinely get vaccines for meningitis A, C, W, and Y (usually at 11 and 12 years old, with a booster at 16, according to the CDC), the meningitis B vaccine is a relatively new vaccine, and isn’t routinely given by most pediatricians.
That’s why Frye decided to join Ask2BSure, a campaign to educate parents about meningitis B and the meningitis B vaccine.
“I think so often people think that their kids have been vaccinated against meningitis when they were younger, and so going into school and not realizing that it’s totally different,” Frye tells me.
Frye tells me that although meningitis B vaccines are available to protect our teens (they were approved for use by the FDA in 2014 and 2015), most teens haven’t been vaccinated against meningitis B. Yet up to 60% of meningitis infections in kids 16-23 are of the meningitis B strain.
“Four out of five 17-year-olds haven’t even received the first dose of meningitis-B vaccination,” says Frye. “I was so blown away when I learned the numbers because I think so many of us have certain assumptions, and then learning about it—and although meningitis is an uncommon illness, it can cause life-threatening complications and death.”
Frye talked about some of the heartbreaking stories of parents she’d spoken to whose children were seriously harmed or whose lives were lost to a meningitis B infection.
“I’ve been listening to these incredible stories, like Jamie, who survived meningitis—her journey,” Frye said. “And Patti, whose daughter got meningitis right before prom; she was about to go to prom, prom dress still hanging, and she died. Just hearing these stories, talking about it, raising these conversations, I think is incredibly important.”
You can watch Jamie’s story here (bring tissues):
And you can read Patsy’s story here. This one is absolutely devastating.
Frye emphasized that the Ask2BSure campaign is not a “you must get the vaccine or else” campaign, but rather an educational campaign for parents—a nudge for parents to open up a dialogue with their pediatrician about the meningitis B vaccine, and whether it makes sense for their teen to get it.
Frye tells me that the pandemic is one of the reasons she became interested in this campaign. So many families have been thinking about the health of their kids in new ways, she said, and understanding the importance of having open conversations with our doctors and educating ourselves about our kids’ health risks, is key.
In fact, Frye’s family recently was directly affected by COVID-19. Frye said that despite doing everything she could to protect them, three out of four of her kids got COVID, and it was a bit of a wake-up call for her.
“I thought my son had a cold. Or a flu or a fever,” Frye said, about her family’s COVID experience. “And my pediatrician was like, ‘You have to test him,’ and I was like, ‘What? Us? How is this possible?’”
Frye shares that thankfully her children are now fine, but the experience taught her that even if you think you are doing everything right, your kids are actually more vulnerable to health scares than you might realize. That’s why we need to be on top of their health, and always be in dialogue with their doctors about the best ways to protect them.
“I think it’s really important to have conversations, to empower ourselves with knowledge, and to help better educate each other,” Frye said.
“And I can speak for myself in saying, I didn’t know about meningitis-B—I’m just being super honest—and it’s something I learned. I’m really happy that I learned it, and I’m really grateful that this time, during the pandemic, that I’ve been able to better educate myself,” she added.
Like I said, I had no idea about meningitis B, either. As the mom of a 14-year-old, I’m most definitely going to be talking to my pediatrician about my son’s risk of contracting meningitis, and whether the meningitis B vaccine might be the right choice for him.
So big kudos for one of my ‘80s childhood heroes for bringing this important issue to my attention—and to the attention of parents everywhere.
For more information about meningitis B, the meningitis B vaccine, and how to start a conversation with your pediatrician about it, visit the Ask2BSure website.