A little more than a year has passed since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American College Health Association recommended that all college freshmen be informed of the benefits of getting vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis.
Meningitis inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord is a rare but highly contagious and potentially fatal disease. The disease is spread by close contact such as kissing or sharing drinks, affects about 3,000 Americans annually and kills about 300, according to the CDC.
Though it is too soon to determine whether the vaccine has caused the number of annual meningitis cases to go down, it is encouraging that a large number of college students are listening to health educators and have been vaccinated, says Dr. Jim Turner, director of student health for the University of Virginia and the chairman of the vaccine task force for the American College Health Association (ACHA).
“Clearly, the public knows” a vaccine is available, Dr. Turner says. “Colleges have done a good job of getting the information out. It is too soon to know if any change in the number of cases is related to the vaccine.”
Still, Dr. Turner is pleased so many colleges and college students are taking the threat of meningitis seriously. An ACHA survey of 1,000 colleges and universities done earlier this year showed that nearly 500 schools were following the CDC recommendations and publicizing the vaccination and/or making it available at campus health centers.
“That number is in stark contrast to the fall of 1997, when less than 10 schools were doing so,” Dr. Turner says. The ACHA first recommended in 1997 that students get vaccinated.
Manufacturers of the vaccine sold about 15,000 doses to colleges in 1998, compared with 340,000 doses sold in 1999, Dr. Turner says.
Recent CDC studies have shown that a student living in a dorm has a six times greater chance of contracting the disease than a college student living off campus.
Researchers still are trying to determine why dorm dwellers are at a higher risk. Some theories have included overcrowding as well as behaviors such as smoking and drinking, says Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC.
Three states Maryland, New Jersey and Arkansas have passed legislation making it mandatory for all students living in residence halls to get vaccinated or sign a waiver declining the vaccine. The vaccine costs $50 to $75 and is covered by some insurance plans. It is good for about three to five years, says Dr. Margaret Bridwell, director of the University Health Center at the University of Maryland’s College Park campus.
Dr. Bridwell says that fewer than a third of the 8,000 students living on campus have declined the vaccine. The university has used 1,696 doses since June 1, she says, with the remainder of vaccinated students getting their dose from their private doctors.
The University of Maryland has not had a meningitis case since the 1998-99 school year, when one was reported. The student recovered.
During the past two years, two students at Frostburg State Univer-sity and one student at Towson State University died from the illness.
Even without a state mandate, University of Virginia students have been eager to get the vaccination, Dr. Turner says.
“In the last two years, about 6,000 students, or 50 percent of our undergraduate population, has been vaccinated. We have mainly been targeting freshmen, so in another two years, I expect to see a high rate of uptake among all of our students,” he says.
The University of Virginia reported five cases of meningitis (none fatal) in 1995 and 1996 but has had none since then.