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World Meningitis Day – New Zealand

The 24th April is World Meningitis Day, which in New Zealand is quickly followed on the 25th of April by ANZAC Day when we remember those who have given their lives for the freedoms we are so fortunate to enjoy today.

For me, Meningitis Day and ANZAC Day seem forever woven together as one, in so many ways.

My family settled from England in the Pakiri-Leigh area of Northland New Zealand in the 1860s. Mary Ann Wyatt, my great-great grandmother, was married in Omaha in 1869 to Charles Septimus Clarke of Leigh.

I cherish many fond memories of my grandmother, Jessie Gravatt (nee Wyatt from Leigh). A giving, hard-working, diminutive lady whose motto for me was “if you can’t say something nice then better you don’t say anything at all”.

Grandma Jessie had two brothers who died in the First World War. George Wyatt of Leigh was killed in action on 25 November 1917 and lies in a Flanders field with his mates.

For so many families the First World War was the end of the family line, losing all their sons to some God forsaken cause.

Perhaps Grandma’s brother George was lucky to be killed in action for so many of their finest young men died not in battle but of infectious diseases.

And so, it is now three generations on that our family line comes to an end because our only son, Zachary, should be taken by the same infectious disease that claimed so many in the trenches of the First World War – meningococcal disease.

So what did George and so many of his generation die for and what has changed?

Perhaps they died for King and Country, for freedom, adventure and a better world for their generations to come.

Oh, but I can’t help thinking that George would be surprised that nearly 95 years later his sister’s great-great grandson should die from an all too familiar trench born scourge.

True enough, in WWI, those with meningococcal disease lucky enough to be evacuated to a rear hospital had only a 10% chance of survival, while today those lucky enough to make it to hospital in time have an 80% chance of survival from meningococcal C that took our Zachary.

In 1917, the year that George was killed in action, nearly 700 soldiers died in British Hospitals from meningococcal disease. Who knows how many never made it to hospital? Statistics from the USA clearly show the wartime meningococcal epidemic.

I can’t help but feel that George and his Kiwi mates would be surprised that their ANZAC cobbers across the ditch have been vaccinated against meningococcal C since 2003 while here in New Zealand we still ponder its cost effectiveness.

Our young Kiwi men and women continue to lay down their lives from meningococcal C, leaving the families to hope that their deaths were not in vain but a rallying cry for a better future, just as George and so many of his comrades did.

For me, Zachary and many like him, represent our modern day Flanders field, where hope lies bleeding in the mud.

As Bob Dylan’s song echoes down the years, “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?” Well the answer is no longer blowin’ in the wind. The answer is ours to choose.

What would George and his generation have to say now if they could be but heard? Listen carefully and you might just hear their whisper…

It is and always will be tangata, tangata, tangata.

–          Dr Lance Gravatt, Chairman

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