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CDC Urges That College Students Get Meningitis Shot

Number of cases in age group doubled in past decade, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 1, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The government today urged that students heading off to college get a meningitis vaccine first.

The number of cases of meningitis among college-age people has doubled in the last 10 years, experts say. And a student's typical lifestyle, from dormitories through barhopping through exposure to cigarette smoke, may be linked to the potentially fatal infection, they add.

"What we really want is for parents and students to learn about meningococcal meningitis and the availability of the vaccine, consider its benefits and hopefully get the vaccine," says Dr. James Turner, a professor of clinical internal medicine and director of student health at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va.

The effort to alert parents and college-bound students about the meningitis vaccine is an intended message of the nationwide National Immunization Awareness Month, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) kicked off today at a press conference in Washington, D.C.

"We want to remind people of all ages of the benefits of timely vaccinations," says Dr. Walter Orenstein, director of the CDC's National Immunization Program. "The latest National Immunization Survey, done in 2000, shows that vaccine coverage for chicken pox went from 57.5 to 67.8 percent. But the survey also shows that the national coverage for the rest of the recommended vaccines decreased slightly."

Turner says it's unclear why college dorms appear to be a breeding ground for meningitis.

"But certain features of college life have clearly been associated with the infection," he says. "Living in crowded conditions, such as dormitories, and having frequent upper respiratory infections, like colds and flus, are considered risk factors. And certain lifestyle features, such as going to bars, drinking excessive alcohol and being around cigarette smoke, also are associative. It could be that being around a lot of people might make it easier to pass bacteria from one person to the next."

Therefore, he adds, "We presume that all these lifestyle factors could transiently decrease one's immunity, making it easier for the bacteria to get into the bloodstream."

Meningitis, which is caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitidis, strikes about 3,000 Americans every year, killing about 300. The bacteria are spread through air droplets or contact with infected victims; outbreaks occur most often in late winter and early spring. Meningitis often attacks the brain and spinal cord and can result in permanent brain damage, hearing loss, learning disability, organ failure, loss of limbs or death. It is estimated that 100 to 125 meningitis cases occur annually on college campuses, and five to 15 students die as a result.

Lynn Bozof of Marietta, Ga., learned all this too late.

"I knew nothing about the disease before my son went to college," says Bozof, whose son, Evan, died of meningitis in April 1998. "We didn't even know about a vaccine until after he died."

Evan, a junior at Georgia Southwestern University, had called his mother to complain of a "terrible migraine headache," Bozof recalls. When his symptoms worsened, she suggested he go to the emergency room. Hours later, he was in intensive care, diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. After 26 days, during which one complication followed another -- from extremely low blood pressure to amputation of his limbs -- Evan suffered irreversible brain damage and died.

Since her son's death, Bozof has been encouraging college freshmen and their parents to learn more about meningitis. "I don't want any parent to go through what I went through just for the cost of a plain vaccine," she says. "If parents knew about the vaccine, I think most parents would get it for their children. It's completely safe and it has no side effects. Parents need to give themselves some peace of mind."

"The vaccine lasts for four years and costs anywhere between $60 and $70 a shot," Turner says. "That's about what vaccines cost. A flu vaccine is $15 and lasts for a year. And the hepatitis B vaccine is about $150, so this vaccine is not that expensive. In the context of a college education. it's nothing. Sixty dollars isn't even a pair of sneakers or the cost of a textbook nowadays."

And the vaccine is not just for students who intend to live on campus, Turner adds.

"It's for any college student who wanted to reduce their risk. There's an outbreak [of meningitis] right now at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, and three students have come down with the disease, all of whom do not live on campus. The school is vaccinating 4,000 students this week," he says.

What To Do

Check with your university or health care provider to see if a meningitis shot is covered. Even if it's not, your college-age child should get one anyhow.

For more on meningitis, see the Meningitis Foundation of America. And visit the National Partnership for Immunization for more information on National Immunization Awareness Month.

SOURCES: Interviews with James Turner, M.D., professor of clinical internal medicine, director of student health, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; Lynn Bozof, Marietta, Ga.; Aug. 1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teleconference
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