Health & Fitness

College students need to get new meningitis vaccine, health experts say

Health advocates are urging incoming college students to get a new meningitis vaccine.
Health advocates are urging incoming college students to get a new meningitis vaccine. TNS

As young adults head off to college and into close quarters with others in dorms, cafeterias and classrooms, health advocates urge students and their parents to consider a new vaccine that may not be on their radar.

The meningitis B vaccine, federally approved in late 2014, can protect against most B strains of the disease, which account for about 50 percent of all meningitis cases in young adults.

Meningitis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that starts with flu-like symptoms of fever, fatigue and body aches. Teenagers and college students living in close quarters are high-risk groups for the disease. It can be spread by sharing things like cups, utensils, cigarettes and lipstick.

It can be treated with antibiotics if caught early, but can escalate quickly to swelling of the brain and spinal cord. While only about 1,000 people in the U.S. get meningitis each year, it leads to death in 10 percent to 15 percent of cases and can cause permanent brain damage, hearing loss and loss of limbs.

“It takes so little to be protected against it and the effects of meningitis are just so devastating, so why risk it?” said Jill Thompson, director of strategic initiative at Generate Health, a St. Louis regional coalition of organizations and advocates working to improve health.

In Florida, state law requires a college student living in on-campus housing to provide documentation of vaccinations against meningitis and hepatitis B. If the student or parent does not provide this documentation, they have to sign a waiver.

Many families are just becoming familiar with the combination meningitis vaccine, which protects against the A, C, W and Y strains. It involves a shot around age 11 and then a booster dose after age 16.

Outbreaks involving the B strain occurred on five college campuses from March 2013 to February 2016, according to the National Meningitis Association. These outbreaks, at Santa Clara University, the University of Oregon, Providence College, Princeton University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, resulted in two deaths. One student lost both feet, and some suffered neurological effects.

Currently, two brands of meningitis B vaccines are available. Both involve two doses. One requires a third dose if a person has been exposed to an outbreak or has other chronic conditions.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states all preteens and teens should get the combination vaccine, it has yet to issue as strong a recommendation for the B strain vaccine. More research is needed to determine how long its protection lasts.

The CDC states that those between the ages of 16 to 23 may get the B strain vaccine, preferably between the ages of 16 to 18. But those who may have been exposed to an outbreak or have conditions such as a damaged spleen, should get it.

Insurance companies may or may not cover the cost, which can range from $125 to $160 per dose if paying out-of-pocket.

Thompson said pediatricians are already suggesting the vaccine when teens come in for their annual appointments.

“It’s a deadly disease, and we want to protect our kids,” she said.