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Meningitis Vaccine Urged for College Freshmen

WebMD Health News

Aug. 1, 2001 (Washington) -- College freshmen: Add a meningitis vaccine to your to-do list before packing for school this year.

The death of Evan Bozof, a college student who contracted meningitis, was entirely preventable because there is a vaccine to protect against the brain-swelling illness, his mother, Lynn Bozof, said at a press conference Wednesday held by the National Partnership for Immunization.

The Partnership, which is a joint program of the National Healthy Mothers, the Healthy Babies Coalition, and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, held the conference to declare August National Immunization Awareness month and to remind parents of young children and college students to get the appropriate vaccinations for their children before they start school this fall.

Meningitis, or a swelling of the brain and spinal cord that is usually caused by bacteria, is on the rise among college freshman, and since 1991, cases among 15- to 24-year-olds have more than doubled. Approximately 125 cases of meningitis, including five to 15 deaths, occur each year on college campuses.

The disease is treated with antibiotics, but it can cause death in hours in some cases. So the vaccine, which can prevent the illness in the first place, is the best bet, and is being pushed by the CDC and other organizations.

Bozof only learned about the meningococcal vaccine after her son's death. Her son died in 1998 after suffering complications of meningitis, including organ failure and the amputation of both arms and legs.

"There are so many things in life over which we do not have control," said Bozof, who urged parents to get the meningitis vaccine for their college-aged children. "Immunizing our children is one thing over which we do have control."

Meningitis "is a rare but serious infection," said James C. Turner, MD, director of the vaccine preventable disease task force of the American College Health Association, which recommended the vaccine for college freshmen in 1997. It is fatal in 10-15% of cases and can lead to serious complications, including brain damage, amputation, and kidney failure in another 20%.

"College students and their parents need to learn about this disease and consider the vaccination before going off to college this fall," said Turner, who also serves as director of the department of student health at the University of Virginia. The vaccine, which the CDC recommends for all college-bound freshmen, is "very safe and highly effective," he added.

The reasons for the increase among college freshmen are not fully understood, but may be related to crowded living conditions in dorms and use of alcohol and tobacco, Turner said.

The most recent cases include a female student at Penn State University who died from meningitis in June and three students at the University of North Florida who contracted the illness over the last three months. All of the Florida students recovered.

"There have been epidemics [of meningitis] in a number of communities ... and freshmen living in dorms are at a substantially higher risk than others" of contracting the disease, Walter Orenstein, MD, assistant surgeon general and director of the CDC's national immunization program, tells WebMD. His daughter, who will head off to college soon, has received the vaccine, he says.

Virginia has just passed a law that went into effect in July requiring incoming college students to either get the vaccine or sign a waiver, Turner tells WebMD. A number of states, including Maryland, California, and Arkansas, have passed similar laws.

Turner estimates that about 60-70% of universities now recommend the vaccine for their students.

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