Each year, a few dozen campuses are turned upside-down for a few weeks by a panic over real or reported cases of meningococcal meningitis. Students (or at least their parents) freak out and administrators are forced to manage the crisis. There are more than 100 such cases on campuses each year, resulting in 10 to 15 deaths.
A change in that situation is almost certainly in the offing for campus health officials, after a panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week approved a recommendation that all college freshmen living in dormitories receive a new vaccination for the disease, a rare but potentially fatal bacterial infection affecting the brain and spinal cord. The decision by the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is expected to be endorsed this week by the vaccination committee of the American College Health Association, says its chairman, James Turner, executive director of student health at the University of Virginia.
"This is a big step for people in campus health," says Turner, who by virtue of his position at the college health association is on the CDC panel that approved the recommendation. "This is a good solid recommendation we can get our hands around, and I think it's going to have a big impact on the number of students getting vaccinated."
Up until now, the CDC has stopped short of recommending vaccination for college students, mostly because the existing vaccines were viewed both as too expensive and not effective enough. Instead, the agency urged colleges to educate students and parents about the risks of meningococcal disease and the potential value of being vaccinated. About 30 states have similar policies, although a handful of states have gone further, like Virginia, which since 2001 has required colleges to vaccinate all undergraduates at public institutions (though students can opt out of being vaccinated if they choose to after reviewing information about the risks of doing so).
Through this patchwork of policies, fewer than half of undergraduates nationally say they've been vaccinated for the disease, according to the college health association.
"The past policy left college health people in a bind because it didn't make a lot of sense," Turner says. "It was like telling students to wear a seat belt if you want to."
In January, though, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Menactra, a new vaccine -- or more precisely, a reformulation of an existing vaccine, Turner says -- that both stays in the body longer and prevents individuals from carrying the disease. That approval prompted the CDC committee on immunization, which had been studying data about the new vaccine for a year, to recommend vaccination for 11-12-year-olds, 15-year-olds entering high school, and college freshmen living in dorms.
Turner predicts that the number of students being vaccinated will shoot up drastically. At UVa, he notes, the proportion of vaccinated students rose from 56 percent, before vaccinations were required, to 86 percent now.
"With a strong recommendation like this, more and more states and universities will strongly recommend or even require the vaccine," Turner predicts. That will not only better protect students' health, he says, but also limit the "hysteria" that visits campuses with meningitis scares each year, which is "so disruptive to university communities."