By Ken MacLeod

ROCHESTER (CBS) – For the last two decades, Madeline and Steven Duarte of Rochester have been on a mission to educate.

“We didn’t know what bacterial meningitis was and we didn’t know there was a vaccine,” says Madeline Duarte. “So we live with that guilt.”

Their daughter Melissa, or “Missy,” was 17 years old when she came down with flu-like symptoms on a Thursday in September 1996. She was dead 24 hours later from a fast-moving bacterial infection they knew nothing about.

“No parent should have to go through what Madeline and I did,” says Steven Duarte.

Melissa Duarte died after contracting an infection.

When they saw this week that two UMass-Amherst students had contracted different forms of bacterial meningitis – they thought about their daughter.

But they also thought about the 2004 mandate they helped to spearhead requiring all colleges in Massachusetts to notify incoming students and their parents about the meningitis vaccine. All but 12 states now have similar laws.

“We wanted to push to make sure that parents know there’s a vaccine,” Madeline Duarte explained. “Where they would have to sign off on it.”

UMass says its current vaccine mixture doesn’t cover the meningitis strain now suffered by one of the two students victims.

The CDC has actually recommended a broader-based serum since 2015 – much like the one the military now gives to all new recruits.

The Duartes hope to make this another teaching moment.

“We feel the pain of the parents who don’t know,” Steven Duarte said.

Madeline and Steven Duarte. (WBZ-TV)

Their daughter was a high school soccer player, who likely contracted her fatal virus by sharing her water bottle with teammates. Melissa died from meningococcemia, a form of bacterial meningitis that invades the blood.

“You shouldn’t be sharing water bottles, or your chapstick,” says her father. “You can be blunt – this is what can happen.”

But Melissa’s mother is skeptical about teens taking that message to heart.

“Kids can be warned about this behavior,” she says, “But kids share. They share everything.”

Indeed, college campuses are among the most fertile breeding grounds for bacterial meningitis outbreaks.

So, UMass-Amherst students have been warned not to share any item that might pass saliva from person to person.

The Duarte’s know all too well that once bacterial meningitis is contracted, it is already too late for at least one of every ten victims – no matter what emergency treatment they get.

And one in five survivors suffer some type of permanent disability.

That’s why the Duarte’s prefer to focus on getting teens vaccinated.

“It’s an opportunity to save parents what we’ve been through,” says Madeline Duarte, “and save a life – maybe.”

Ken MacLeod


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