ANNAPOLIS – The illness of a University of Maryland student last year has prompted lawmakers to consider requiring meningitis vaccinations for college students.
The bill, sponsored by Delegate Mary Rosso, D-Anne Arundel, and other members of the General Assembly, requires on-campus students to be vaccinated against the rare, but sometimes fatal, disease.
Dorm residents have a higher incidence of meningitis than the total population, the Journal of American Medical Association reported in May. The rate of infection for on-campus residents was 3.2 out of 100,000 students, compared to 1.4 per 100,000 in the nation. The closeness of the living space can increase the chances of spreading the airborne infection.
While the disease is uncommon – about 3,000 cases each year – the number of outbreaks has been rising among college students, according to the American College Health Association.
In September, a University of Maryland student tested positive for bacterial meningitis.
Brad Wilson, a junior and resident of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house, was treated at Doctors Community Hospital and released two weeks later. More than 1,000 students were vaccinated by the University Health Center in the wake of the incident.
“Students don’t really think about (meningitis) unless they are exposed,” and are often unmotivated to vaccinate, Russo said.
Rosso is optimistic about passing the bill, but the expense of statewide vaccinations concerned one physician.
Dr. James Turner, spokesman for the American College Health Association, said it is more expensive to vaccinate all college freshmen than to deal with the health effects of the disease.
“As a physician, I can understand the spirit behind getting as many students vaccinated,” Turner said.
Instead, Turner said, schools should follow the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’ recommendation and provide information to students about the disease and the benefits of vaccination.
Maryland’s University Health Center agrees with that recommendation and feels students should “choose for themselves” whether to get vaccinated, a spokeswoman said.
“Our policy is to make sure people are educated,” Dr. Judith Perry said. Students need to be aware of the limitations of the vaccine, Perry said. While the vaccine covers four strains of the virus, it does not cover all and is only good for three to five years.
“Having the vaccine does not mean you are never going to get the disease,” Perry said.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection that causes the membranes around the brain and spinal cord to swell. The disease can lead to permanent hearing loss, brain damage, or death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 10 percent of cases are fatal.
A public hearing for the bill will be held by the House Environmental Matters Committee Feb. 23.
An option is available for students who do not want the vaccine. Rosso said her bill allows unwilling students to sign a waiver.