Schools, states need to mandate meningitis vaccinations

Photo credit: Rewon Shimray

Purchasing shower shoes and coordinating colors with their roommates are tasks that many eager freshmen are more than happy to cross off their “College Checklists.” However, scheduling and receiving a meningitis vaccine, while not as attractive as dorm decorating, is one of the most important requirements students must complete before going to college.

According to Texas Health and Human Services, while the State of Texas demands proof of the meningococcal vaccine before a student’s entrance to a university, this is not the case with all other states. For example, at Northern Arizona University, students are “strongly encouraged” to receive this shot, but not required to do so.

Were students at NAU instructed to obtain the meningitis vaccine before jumping headfirst into college life, perhaps 19-year-old Lianne Dennstedt would not have contracted the infection within the first few weeks of school. According to AZ 3TV/CBS5, Dennstedt thought she came down with a common cold and sore throat at the start of the school year, but is now currently in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit at Flagstaff Medical Center due to a rare form of meningitis.

“She’s 19 years old, but she’s still our baby,” said Dennstedt’s father, Shawn to AZ 3TV/CBS5. “And to walk into a hospital room and see her attached to all the ventilators and all the machines, it’s a terrifying experience. Nobody should have to see their kid like this.”

For those who are unfamiliar with meningitis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes the infection as the “inflammation (swelling) of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.” The infection can be transmitted through bacteria, which can be deadly, as well as through viruses and fungi, which can be serious but “less severe” than a bacterial infection. According to the CDC, students who live in dorms are much more likely to contract meningococcal meningitis because they share personal items in close spaces, have irregular sleep patterns and may smoke or drink excessively.

Symptoms of the infection can include but are not limited to fever, headache, nausea and vomiting, confusion and sleepiness. Some of these symptoms can cross over with other more common illnesses such as a cold or sore throat, which explains why Dennstedt was unaware that she had meningitis at first. For those who think they may have symptoms of meningitis, a doctor can take a blood sample to determine whether they have the infection. Symptoms typically present themselves within three to seven days of contraction and do not go away on their own, unlike common illnesses. In some cases, such as Dennstedt’s, the infection can even lead to seizures or coma.

Although NAU is just one example of a school that only suggests a meningococcal vaccine, there are 11 states that do not mandate the vaccine before entrance to a university, according to the Immunization Action Coalition. Of the 39 states that do require the shot, only five call for public universities to require it, and others only specify other stipulations. Texas is among the 21 states that mandate all universities, public or private, enforce the vaccination.

Baylor Health Services outlines their compliance with Texas State Law and asks that students provide proof of the meningococcal vaccination, and will not allow students to “register for classes, move into the residence hall or attend class” if they have not presented this documentation.

With 11 states that do not require this shot, students risk contraction simply by interacting with others who have not been vaccinated, as the infection can be spread by kissing as well as inhaling after someone infected has coughed or sneezed. As shown by Dennstedt’s current comatose state, meningitis can be severe, and in some cases fatal. By mandating that all students receive this shot before attending a university, states and schools can protect the lives and futures of every student that seeks higher education.