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New York City
September 2002

Colleges Endorse Meningitis Vaccine
By Priya Athiappan

This Fall, thousands of college students will be vaccinated against meningococcal meningitis. Olivia, an incoming freshman at New York University, is one of them. “I’m going to get the vaccine, mostly because my physician advised me to, even though it’s not one of the vaccinations that NYU requires.”

Olivia has cause to be concerned about meningitis. College freshman have a six-fold increase over the general public of becoming infected with the disease. Dr. James C. Turner, who chairs the vaccine task force for the American College Health Association, credits the increase to the “congregate, crowded conditions” of dorm living. In dorms, it is more likely for meningitis to be spread through coughing, sneezing or kissing.

There are two categories of meningitis, bacterial and viral. According to Dr. Turner, the bacterial form–especially meningococcal meningitis–is what college students should be concerned with. Early symptoms of the disease include a low fever, a mild headache and body aches. At this stage, it is often dismissed as a case of the flu. In later stages, an excruciating headache and red spots on the legs or feet, indicating blood poisoning, can develop. The meninges–the lining of the brain–become inflamed, potentially resulting in death. Each year, says Turner, around 2,500-3,000 Americans become infected. Of that number, 100-150 are college students. 20% of those students will suffer permanent complications such as amputation, kidney failure and brain damage. Another 10-15% will die. “It is an extremely dangerous disease,” warns Dr. Turner.

Though the chances of getting meningitis are relatively slim, after a person becomes infected, the outlook is bleak. “Despite modern technology, the mortality rate hasn’t changed much,” reports Turner. As a result, the Centers for Disease Control recommends that college medical providers “give information to students and their parents about meningococcal disease and the benefits of vaccination.” Dr. Turner believes that universities are successfully doing their part in meningitis prevention. “Virtually every health service is providing education or providing the vaccine.” Over two million students have been vaccinated in the past few years. At Fordham, Kathleen Letizia, the Director of Student Health Services, sends freshmen a brochure about meningitis and mails letters about getting vaccinated. She says that over 90% of students have been vaccinated this year, and next year it may be required. Dr. Carlo Ciotoli, Medical Director of the NYU Health Center, says NYU also takes numerous steps to protect its students. Aside from sending out letters, informative measures include “mentioning the vaccine at orientations, flyers and brochures distributed in the Health Center, Residence Halls and the annual Health Fair, and articles and ads in the school paper.” Based on a random sampling in year 2000, 50% of NYU students were estimated to have been vaccinated.

The vaccine itself is “very safe and effective,” although not guaranteed to prevent meningococcal meningitis, according to Turner. It is made of a derivative of the protein that coats meningitis-causing bacteria. The vaccine becomes effective after 14 days and protects for three to five years. The average cost of the vaccine is around $75-$85, but many colleges provide the vaccine at a lower cost.

Although the risk for off-campus students is less than those who dorm, it is recommended that they receive vaccine as well. “I don’t push as hard, but I still think they should get vaccinated,” says Kathleen Letizia. “We review the risks and benefits of the vaccine and provide it based on the student’s decision,” says Dr. Ciotoli. Amee, a sophomore who commutes to NYU, believes off-campus students are treated differently. For example, she says, “People who move in get a package of info that we don’t get.”

Although some do not receive the meningitis vaccine believing the chances of becoming infected are small, experts say the benefits outweigh the cost. “There is a high mortality rate for meningococcal meningitis even with treatment, so prevention is important,” advises Dr. Ciotoli. As for Olivia, she realizes the importance of prevention as well. “I remember hearing on the news last year about a student at another university who got meningitis and died from it. I’m not saying something like that will definitely happen at NYU, but it’s always best to be safe and get the vaccination.”#


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