Since the pandemic started, we’ve had more vaccine discourse than anyone could’ve anticipated. The work of getting parents educated about the COVID-19 vaccines as they begin to become available to teens and kids over 12 is the latest frontier of vaccine awareness, building on the other movements to get all young people up-to-date on the vaccinations they need to be their healthiest.
Molly Ringwald, known forever for bringing to life some of the most iconic teen girl characters to grace the silver screen, recognizes more than anyone the power and vulnerability of that age. Paired with having her own teenager and two pre-teens at home, she was inspired to team up with the National Meningitis Association (NMA) for the 16 Vaccine initiative — to help ensure more parents and their teens know about the importance of getting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended second dose of MenACWY vaccine to prevent meningococcal disease (including meningococcal meningitis).
Ringwald was also touched by the story of NMA President Leslie Maier, who lost her son Chris to meningococcal meningitis when he was just 17 years old. Leslie has since dedicated her life to the work of spreading vaccine and meningococcal disease awareness and gives people around the world a glimpse at the memory of her son — a bright, funny youngest child who brought her so much joy — and tries to encourage more parents to take every precaution to protect their own kids.
SheKnows caught up with Ringwald and Maier to chat a bit more about the campaign, their work reaching parents with vital vaccine information, and helping teens navigate these crucial and formative years.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
SheKnows: To start off, tell me about the 16 Vaccine campaign — how you got involved, and what are the most important things parents should know about meningitis and prevention?
Molly Ringwald: I got involved as a possible spokesperson because I think a lot of people know me from the work I’ve done that has to do with teenagers — from the movies I did when I was a teenager to Secret Life of the American Teenager to Riverdale — I’m sort of inextricably connected in some ways to the teen life and existence. But I’m also the parent of a teenage daughter, a 17-year-old, and two pre-teens. My twins are 11 years old. And I’m very conscious and aware of what I can do as a parent to protect them. Of course, as a parent, you want to do everything you can and some things are out of your control but the one thing that we can control is getting them vaccinated. So I would like people to know more about meningococcal meningitis because it’s not even on a lot of people’s radar.
I was very moved by Leslie’s story. Leslie lost her 17-year-old son Chris to meningitis and didn’t even know what it was. It’s a disease that can kill you within 24 hours. It’s rare but incredibly deadly.
Leslie Maier: The focus of this campaign is to let parents know the importance of getting the second dose of the MenACWY vaccine. They probably got their kids vaccinated at 11 and 12, which is what the CDC recommends, but [the org] also recommends the second dose at age 16 and a lot of parents don’t realize that they need two shots of that MenACWY vaccine to fully protect their kids as they enter the more risky years of their lives. Because young adults and teenagers are more at risk for meningococcal meningitis.
My son Chris was 17, a senior in high school, he scored the winning goal for his high school soccer team to become the state champions and two weeks later, when he was having his state champion picture taken, I picked him up and we were talking on the way home and he said he had a headache and I had no idea that that was the first symptom of meningococcal meningitis or that it was one of the symptoms.
“I found out about this terrible disease the way no one ever wants to find out about a terrible disease — by losing your child.”
He ended up coming home, taking a bath because he couldn’t get warm. He got up a few times during the night to take another bath, I gave him some acetaminophen and I knew he had a fever and a headache, but I thought it was the flu. And that’s why meningococcal meningitis is so dangerous because the symptoms are like any other disease — and at that time I didn’t even know the flu killed you — so I just thought he could go to the doctor in the morning if he doesn’t feel better. And the next morning his dad was preparing to take him to the doctor and… finding him on his bed and the last words Chris ever spoke were “dad, I can’t feel my feet.”
…But because my life changed in less than 24 hours, I found out about this terrible disease the way no one ever wants to find out about a terrible disease — by losing your child.
And especially in these times, heading toward post-COVID, kids aren’t getting their immunizations. So while they get their second dose of the MenACWY shot we want them to also ask about the MenB vaccine (for meningitis B) and also to get caught up on all of their immunizations. I learned the hard way that vaccines are really important and they save lives. So that’s why I’m doing this — and I feel like Chris would want me to do this, he wouldn’t want anyone else to die from a disease that’s vaccine-preventable.
SK: What are your favorite resources to recommend for parents who want to learn more about these vaccines and meningococcal disease?
MR: I feel like the 16 Vaccine website is a great place to start, but also talk to your teen’s healthcare provider, and if you don’t have a teenager but you know a teenager talk to those parents and get educated as much as you can.
LM: I’d say the same and also for more detailed information they can go to the CDC website or the National Meningitis Association (NMA) also has information and there are videos of survivors and parents and even siblings who have been affected by the disease. So that people really understand the importance of getting kids the second dose, so they can have long, good lives.
SK: Molly, because you’ve played some of the most iconic and definitive teen girl characters — who really let you get into the interior of young women’s minds — what are your thoughts on the stories we’re telling about teen girls now? Have they gotten better, bigger, more interesting — and what do you hope to see in the future?
MR: I think we’re definitely going in the right direction. I feel like the movies that I did were extraordinary for the time in that the young woman was the protagonist — I wasn’t just playing someone’s girlfriend, but the stories were from my characters’ point of view. Obviously, it was a certain time, and times have changed and I believe that the times are reflecting that. I love how Frozen, the kiss at the end wasn’t from Prince Charming but from the sister. I love that.
And just judging from my own kids, I like to say that my 11-year-old daughter is the most woke individual on the planet. She schools me on things that I say ±and I consider myself a pretty liberal, feminist person — but she’s beyond me. And I think if we continue in that direction and just keep giving voice to people who haven’t been able to tell their stories, I think we’re moving in the right direction.
SK: I feel like we can only hope that this next generation of kids — that they’re kinder, more compassionate and they make us go ‘whoa, am I behind?’ because that’s a sign we’re doing something right!
I was revisiting The New Yorker essay you wrote reflecting on your films in the age of Me Too and the This American Life with your daughter, about revisiting the legacy of your work and watching it with her at age 10. Have you revisited them again now that you have an actual teenager?
MR: I haven’t revisited them since I watched them with Matilda, my elder daughter. That’s coming up. Of course, like I said, because I have this eleven-year-old daughter who’s very woke, I know that she’s going to give me a lot of grief about some of the moments in the movies, so I think I need to mentally prepare myself.
“I’m just happy that the movies I did give voice to teenagers and took teenagers very seriously.”
And I’m just happy that the movies I did give voice to teenagers and took teenagers very seriously. And I’m really happy that I’m a part of those movies and also that it gave me a platform to talk about something like this, that I have this incredible following… and that they might listen to what I have to say about meningococcal meningitis, something that they never, ever would’ve known about.
For more information on meningococcal meningitis and vaccines, please visit the16vaccine.org and talk with your teen’s healthcare provider.
And, before you go, check out some of our favorite inspiring quotes for coping with grief and death: