On the show, A is everywhere, peering into the Liars’ lives and messing with their heads. While teen viewers know A is just a (super creepy) made-up character, Hale wants to help educate them about a real-life threat: meningococcal meningitis.
The life-threatening bacterial infection is spread from person to person through respiratory and throat secretions. Though the Centers for Disease Control reports less than 1,000 cases in the United States each year, it can kill a patient in a day – and young people are the most vulnerable.
That’s why Hale is getting behind the cause. “I’m very aware of who supports me and who my fan base is, and that’s teens,” Hale tells PEOPLE. “Teens are the ones that are at risk here. Oftentimes, I don’t get to lend my voice to something that can change a life. Although it’s a rare disease, it’s one too many. It’s always one too many.”
Most parents know that their kids should be vaccinated at age 11 or 12. But according to a CDC survey, just under 30 percent of children ages 13-17 receive the meningitis booster shot a few years later.
So why are teens in the most danger? Their behaviors, Sally Schoessler from the National Association of School Nurses tells PEOPLE.
“It’s sharing eating utensils, sharing water bottles, kissing, living in close corporate quarters like dormitories or even camps,” she says. “It’s difficult to diagnose because it looks like the flu, but it can take the life of an otherwise healthy individual within 24 hours.”
To help raise awareness, Hale, 25, has teamed up with Voices of Meningitis for its “Boost the Volume” campaign to challenge high school a capella groups in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Portland to sing a mashup of “Best Day of My Life” by American Authors and “Good Life” by One Republic. The winning group will perform the medley with Hale. (You can watch the four finalists’ submissions below.)
“A capella groups are very appropriate right now with Pitch Perfect and Glee. I was never part of an a cappella group, so this is fulfilling something on my bucket list,” the country singer jokes. “I was like, ‘Am I too old to be in a high school a capella group?’
“But it’s very fun. And the whole foundation of all of this is spreading awareness about meningococcal meningitis, and I think we can really make a difference here. I’m just overjoyed that I get to be the person that gets to talk and sing about it.”
Jamie Schanbaum knows about the devastation meningitis can cause all too well. At the age of 20, she was a sophomore at her dream college, the University of Texas at Austin. She woke up one day feeling sick: She was vomiting, shivering and could barely walk. Her arms and legs felt extra sensitive as she lied on the porcelain tile of the bathroom. After 14 hours of agony, her sister took her to the hospital. She didn’t leave until seven months later, after doctors amputated her legs and most of her fingers.
Her dream had turned into a nightmare.
“I literally watched my limbs go from red rash, to purple, to black, to literally rotting limbs,” Schanbaum, now 26, tells PEOPLE. “And I know that’s heavy, but it’s also important to know it’s not like, ‘Oh, you’ll be in the hospital for a couple days.’ You’re in the hospital wondering if you’re going to survive.”
Schanbaum had not been vaccinated for meningitis – she didn’t even know it was an option.
“I was mentally, physically depleted, and to learn that it could have been prevented is a whole other cycle to process,” she says.
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Hale’s mother is a nurse, so she was raised to understand the serious consequences of not being vaccinated. Now, she’s teamed up with Schoessler and Schanbaum to make sure her fans protect themselves, too.
“I was just always aware of when I was getting my shots, what I was getting my shots for,” she explains. “I feel very blessed that I grew up in a house where I knew the importance of vaccinations … for me, there’s no question that it can save a life from some potentially deadly and scary diseases such as meningococcal meningitis.”
For more information, visit BoostTheVolume.com. And check back with PEOPLE.com Tuesday for PLL scoop straight from Hale.