University Policies Differ On Meningitis Vaccines.

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An Ohio State University student is recovering after contracting bacterial meningitis, a contagious disease that can be fatal. While just about every college encourages students to protect themselves with the meningitis vaccine, only some require it. WOSU looks at immunization policies at colleges and universities.

“Have either of you gotten the vaccine? Um, I think I might have gotten a shot for it. Yeah, I took a series of shots. I can’t remember..”

Sophomores Nathan Satterfield and James Storey walk past the student health center at Ohio State. They’re dorm roommates. Neither of them were aware a fellow student is still recovering after getting the potentially lethal form of meningitis. Satterfield is unsure if he got a vaccine for meningococcal meningitis – the most serious form of bacterial meningitis. He said it’s not something he really thinks about.

“I’ve never really even thought about it until you mentioned it. You know, never really a worry,” Satterfield said.

Bacterial meningitis causes inflammation of the membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord. State law requires students living in on-campus housing to disclose whether they have been vaccinated for meningitis and Hepatitis B. But students do not have to prove it. And state law leaves it up to school administrators to decide whether to require any vaccines for students.

This practice is fairly common around Ohio. Ohio University, the University of Akron, the University of Cincinnati and Columbus State do not have any vaccine requirements.

But other schools have much stronger vaccine policies. Many schools at a minimum, require two rounds of the measles, mumps and rubella shot. Others like Ohio Wesleyan University require polio, Hepatitis B, Diptheria, Pertussis and Tetanus vaccines and a tuberculosis screening.

Robert Palinkas chairs the Vaccine Preventable Committee for the American College Health Association. Palinkas said politics and money play a role when colleges decide whether to require immunizations including the meningitis vaccine.

“They have to decide also whether the requirement that they impose is going to either deny them some very highly valued recruited students or whether it might impact the financial performance of how people sort of select a college or university,” Palinkas said.

Palinkas said not requiring vaccines puts students at risk. He said schools often rethink their immunization policies after an outbreak.

“We often see a college that had little or no vaccination requirement sort of has a whole different view when they have a couple of cases and suddenly they see the whole issue in a different light and begin to put in these requirements,” he said.

According to media reports there have been six cases of bacterial meningitis at Ohio State since 1998; two of the students died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says bacterial meningitis effects one out of every 100,000 people.

Roger Miller is the preventive medicine physician for Ohio State health services. He said the university follows state immunization guidelines. It notifies students of communicable diseases, like meningitis, and how to get vaccinated.

“Most of our students come from the United States and so most of them have been through public education and been required to have vaccinations up to date to receive their high school diplomas. So we’re going with those requirements having already been completed,” Miller said. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures three states, Connecticut, New Jersey and Vermont, require certain college students to receive the meningitis vaccine allowing only for some exemptions.

Although West Virginia law does not require such shots, if a student wants to go to West Virginia University they must be vaccinated against meningitis. That rule was put in place in 2006 after a student contracted the disease.

Jan Palmer directs Student Health Services at WVU. He said in large populations the vaccine is known to decrease incidence of disease by up to 80 percent. But he said he can not say if it has been successful at his institution.

“It’s so random and infrequent that at our university I can’t say that I could even tell you that there’s a change from the vaccination. But if I look at national statistics with larger numbers I am reassured that we are decreasing the amount of bacterial meningitis,” Palmer said.

A WVU student died a year later from meningitis even though she was vaccinated. The ACHA’s Palinkas said unfortunately the meningitis vaccine is not fool-proof and does not cover every strain of the disease.

“That is the issue people will point to. They might say well gee we see noting but the kind of strain that the vaccine is not protective for and it’s over a hundred dollars,” Palinkas said.

OSU’s Miller said the university does often discuss whether to require the vaccine. But he questions the value of mandatory vaccinations.

“Putting students through a process where they would be required to be immunized or required to show proof of immunization, is that going to be to the best benefit for that student when the number of cases we’re preventing are going to be quite small,” Miller said.

And Miller noted the vaccine’s shortcomings. It does not cover every strain. And he said there is no sign that scientists will develop a shot for every strain any time soon.

“And a vaccine requirement isn’t going to change that,” he said.