Former Olympian Dara Torres is best known for her swimming prowess, so it’s no surprise that mother of three and 12-time Olympic medalist has taken to the pool to help raise awareness of meningococcal meningitis.
As mom to Tessa, 8, and stepmom to Krista and Lucas, 14, Torres, the first and only American swimmer to compete in the Olympics five times, says she was surprised to learn that many parents don’t fully realize the dangers of meningococcal meningitis, also known as bacterial meningitis, and the importance of having children vaccinated.
“I had no idea how dangerous meningococcal meningitis was, “ says Torres, who is serving as an ambassador for Voices of Meningitis. “I want other parents to know there is a vaccine available that can prevent children and teens from contracting this serious infection.”
The National Meningitis Association says meningococcal meningitis is a rare and sometimes deadly bacterial infection that causes inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord. Usually caused by an infection, the germs that cause it can be passed from one person to another through coughing and sneezing.
Symptoms of meningitis can come on suddenly and lead to devastating complications such as hearing loss, brain or kidney damage, or limb amputations. Approximately 800-1,200 people in the United States contract meningitis each year, and of those who get the disease, 10-15 percent die. Among those who survive, 1 in 5 live with permanent disabilities.
As ambassador for the Voices of Meningitis campaign, Torres has been touring the country to speak with youth groups and families about meningitis prevention and to swim 24 laps at events to signify how meningitis can claim a life in just 24 hours.
With families sending their kids off to camps and their high school grads off to college, we spoke with Torres about her new health campaign and how families can keep their kids safe.
Daily Parent: What motivated you to become involved with this campaign?
Dara Torres: When I was in college, there was a case where a student athlete contracted meningitis. Fortunately her symptoms were detected early and she was fine, but I’ve also met other young athletes who weren’t as fortunate. As the mom of three young athletes, I want to stress to other parents how important it is to have children vaccinated against meningitis. Student athletes and kids who attend camps or live in college dorms are more prone to contracting meningitis since they are often in close proximity with others in locker rooms or dorm rooms and share water bottles and utensils.
As parents we strive to protect our kids by buying them protective gear and proper equipment when they play sports, but it’s just as critical to ensure they are vaccinated against this potentially life-threatening disease.
DP: Will you be having your kids vaccinated?
DT: Definitely. Tessa can get vaccinated when she’s 11, and the twins can get a meningitis booster shot at age 16. I encourage other parents to talk with their child’s pediatrician about getting vaccinated to protect their child against meningitis. Vaccination is the best prevention, but if caught early enough, meningitis can be treated with antibiotics.
DP: What do you want other families to know about meningitis?
DT: During its early stages, meningococcal disease can be mistaken for the flu or other common viral illnesses, but unlike a common viral infection, meningococcal disease can progress very rapidly and potentially kill an otherwise healthy young person within 24 hours. Some states require that students get vaccinated at public schools and colleges, while others don’t. (To check on your state’s laws, visit this link.)
DP: You participated in your last Olympics, the 2008 summer games in Beijing, at the age of 41. What have you been doing since you retired?
DT: I still spend 2-3 days in the pool as part of my aerobic exercise routine, and I’m really enjoying being a mom, and doing activities with my family. I also tour the country giving motivational speeches on health and wellness topics and encouraging people to never give up on their dreams.
For more information on the Voices of Meningitis campaign, visit voicesofmeningitis.org.