The recent death of a Chantilly teenager from viral meningitis and a rash of other cases in Fairfax County have focused attention on the disease, especially among young people. Mike and Deb Kepferle of St. Mary's County, who lost a son to bacterial meningitis four years ago, started a nonprofit group called the National Meningitis Association. They recently answered questions by e-mail from Washington Post staff writer C. Woodrow Irvin:

QTell us what happened to your son Patrick.

APatrick was our oldest son and an 18-year-old freshman at Towson University. We tried to have him immunized with the meningococcal meningitis vaccine locally before he went to college, but our clinic didn't have it. We were not concerned because we did not understand the disease. We simply told Pat to get the shot at the college health center. He put it off, and in early March 2000, we received a call from St. Joseph's Hospital in Towson urging us to come as he was in critical condition. He died March 5, 2000, less than 24 hours after we had dropped him off at his dorm.

We started a nonprofit in 2001 to begin increasing awareness about the disease and the vaccine that has been around for decades. In 2002, we established it as the National Meningitis Association. There are five founding members from around the country, and we are rapidly expanding our volunteer organization.

What are the forms of meningitis, and how are they spread?

Viral meningitis is usually a less serious form of the disease and rarely fatal in persons with normal immune systems. Symptoms last seven to 10 days, and typically patients recover completely. On the other hand, bacterial meningitis can be very serious and can result in disability or death if not treated quickly. Most bacterial forms have vaccines that provide some protection. All meningitis is spread by saliva transmission (sharing drinks, cigarettes, lip balm, coughing in close contact). It can be prevented [by] avoiding those actions and by hand-washing.

What are the risks associated with meningitis infections?

The infection has symptoms similar to the flu, so it can often be misdiagnosed. In meningococcal meningitis cases, death can occur in a matter of hours. Many survivors end up with long-term disabilities, including limb amputations, organ damage or mental impairment. Viral meningitis is not usually as severe as bacterial, but it is very hard to tell the difference initially. Symptoms may include high fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, nausea, vomiting, exhaustion and rash. If these symptoms are sudden or severe, call a doctor.

Recent studies show that adolescents and young adults are at an increased risk for contracting the disease and account for nearly 30 percent of all U.S. cases annually. One in four cases among adolescents and young adults may result in death. Up to 80 percent of cases among this group are preventable by getting the vaccine.

When should parents consider vaccination for their children?

All ages over 2. After Pat died, we had his 7-year-old brother and 14-year-old and 21-year-old sisters immunized. They will be revaccinated this year. At a minimum, parents should consider vaccination for preadolescents. The Centers for Disease Control recommend that parents and college students, especially freshmen, be educated about the disease and vaccine. For adolescents, public health officials are currently developing immunization recommendations specifically targeting this age group. We urge parents to speak to their child's physician about the disease and immunization. What support is available for those families who have suffered a loss because of meningitis?

They can call us at the National Meningitis Association at 866-366-3662 or e-mail us at support@nmaus.org. Many of our volunteers have experienced meningitis, lost a family member to the disease or are dealing with the aftereffects. We know how painful and scary this disease is and want to help anyone who needs support.

Deb Kepferle of St. Mary's County sends her son, Pat, off to college. In March 2000, six months after arriving at Towson University, he died of bacterial meningitis.