Meningitis Vaccine Important, Even If Not Required
Aug 23, 2010

By Christine Vara
It’s August and every where you turn students are preparing to return to school.  College students are often the first ones to return to campus, and today it is not uncommon for students living in dorms to be required to get a meningitis vaccine.  For instance a new Texas law, called the Jamie Schanbaum Act, requires college students who plan to live on campus for the first time to get an immunization against meningitis.  The requirement has been prompted by the fact that college students are at an elevated risk of contracting the disease due to the fact that they often live in small, crowded spaces.  Additionally, they often engage in behaviors such as sharing items, kissing and smoking that can further increase their risk.
But I wondered, why are we protecting only those students living in dorms?  Aren’t students living at home or elsewhere off campus still at risk?  Take Jamie Schanbaum for example.  She was key in advocating for the new Texas law.  She was a healthy 20 year old Texas sophomore living in an off campus apartment when she contracted meningococcemia, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis, which swiftly attacked her bloodstream resulting in the amputation of most of her fingers and the lower half of her legs.
Another concern pertains to tweens and teens between the ages of 11-18. Statistics indicate that they are also in a high risk category for contracting meningitis, for many of the same reasons as college students.   A recent article in the Denver Post even highlighted the concern for infection amongst adolescent athletes.  Since most team sports require players to spend a lot of time in close contact, the disease, spread through air droplets and direct contact with someone who is infected, has the ability to spread quickly in such conditions.  It is suspected that a June outbreak of meningtitis in Fort Collins, Colorado was spread during a hockey game.  Who would have guessed that the good sportsmanship gesture of a post-game handshake at a hockey game could result in three deaths from a meningitis outbreak.  As sad as this is, the truth is it can often be something that simple. 
According to the National Meningitis Association, meningococcal disease is a serious, potentially fatal bacterial infection that strikes an average of 1,500 Americans annually, of which 11% will die.  In particular, adolescents and young adults account for 15 % of all cases. The reality is that one out of seven cases among adolescents will result in death and that is why we must encourage parents to vaccinate their adolescent children, regardless of whether it is mandated by schools or universities.
Among those who survive meningococcal disease, approximately 20 percent suffer long-term consequences, such as brain damage, kidney disease, hearing loss or limb amputations like Jamie Schanbaum.  Her story, and the touching accounts of many other survivors and victims, are featured on the websites of organizations like Meningitis Angels .  The National Association of School Nurses is also promoting a campaign of awareness with their Voices of Meningitis campaign.  Both organizations provide powerful stories of families who have suffered in some way from meningitis.  Their messages are impactful and extremely effective in demonstrating the importance of preventive measures, such as vaccination.
The statistics clearly indicate that there is a need for a more comprehensive effort in the fight against meningitis. However, while the CDC recommends routine immunization against meningococcal meningitis for all adolescents 11 to 18, as well as college freshmen living in dormitories, recent studies also indicate that there are close to 50% of teens who are not currently vaccinated against meningitis.   But why?
Unfortunately, as children get older, parents don’t routinely bring them in for regular doctor visits as they did when they were infants.  Additionally, meningitis immunizations are not universally required by all states for admittance into school.  Even though some states currently require immunization for students entering 6th grade, there may be older children, in that same state, that were never required to get the vaccine and therefore remain unvaccinated.  The fact is that if a vaccine is not required by the state or schools, many parents are simply not aware of the CDC recommendations.
Which is why, as part of National Immunization Awareness Month, Shot of Prevention would like to encourage parents to take some preventive measures.  Talk to your doctor about how a meningitis vaccine, as well as other recommended vaccines, can protect your children prior to the upcoming school year.   Be aware that vaccinations aren’t only for infants and young children.  Take precautions for your teens as well.
Of course, if you have additional information pertaining to the recommended meningitis vaccine, or would like to share a personal experience, feel free to post a comment below.

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