By Kassia Micek
In addition to class schedules, tuition and fees, college students have one more thing to worry about this semester: meeting new meningitis vaccine requirements before they can start classes.
In May, the Texas Legislature approved Senate Bill 1107, which requires new college students to provide proof of a bacterial meningitis vaccine 10 days before classes begin. That is a “significant expansion” of a 2009 law that required only students living on campus to get vaccinated, said Dominic Chavez, senior director of external relations at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The new requirements affect all new students, including those living off campus.
Now, all new students to a college or university, transfer students or students who are returning to college after taking off consecutive semesters are required to get the bacterial meningitis vaccine. Students enrolled only in online or other long-distance education courses or who are 30 years of age or older are exempted from immunization requirements, according to the bill summary.
“The medical community makes the case that bacterial meningitis because it is a highly contagious disease with a high rate of death and thrives in close knit communities, college communities are at risk,” Chavez said, adding he did not know what makes other large entities where people work closely together different.
Those most affected by the new law are community colleges, which previously did not have to worry about the vaccine as most community college do not provide on-campus housing.
“Particularly, among community colleges, where you have a lot of students we call independent … that student may not have health insurance,” Chavez said. “Are they going to be able to afford that vaccine?”
That’s exactly the concern officials at the Lone Star College System have.
“I am very concerned that many students won’t be able to attend classes because they can’t afford the vaccine,” said Donetta Goodall, LSCS vice chancellor of academic affairs and student success.
Vaccines ran run as high as $300 each, Goodall said.
“Our students are usually working and have very limited resources,” she said. “This is going to hurt them.”
That’s why LSCS has partnered with the Central Care Community Health Center to provide low cost bacterial meningitis vaccinations for the potentially 6,000 LSCS students who will need to get vaccinated to comply with the new law. CCCHC will vaccinate students for $10 at specified times on campuses, according toLoneStar.edu/meningitis.
The college had 146 doses of the vaccine left for a clinic at LSC-Tomball Friday and ran out, Goodall said. Now, college officials are looking for additional sources of low-cost vaccine to offer students, she said.
“We have not seen any changes in registration,” Goodall said. “We are hoping it is not going to adversely affect registration.”
Each institution of higher education, or private or independent institution of higher education must designate a department or unit to receive evidence from the student of receipt of an initial bacterial meningitis vaccination or booster dose during the five-year period preceding, according to an email from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
For Lone Star College, the spring semester kicks off Jan. 17, according to a LSCS press release. To meet the state deadline, proof of vaccination must be submitted to LSCS on or before Jan. 6.
“We are not turning students away if they haven’t gotten the vaccine,” Goodall said. “We are going to work with them.”
In the law it allows for a 10-day extension after classes start, Goodall said. That extension would end Jan. 31 for LSCS students.
Frankie Milley, founder of Meningitis Angels based in Conroe, lost her 18-year-old son to the disease 13 years ago. Ryan had just graduated when he became sick on Father’s Day. Within 14 hours, he had blood coming from every orifice, Milley said.
“We literally watched him bleed to death,” she said. “Within 48 hours I found out there was a vaccine on the market that could have prevented it and nobody told me. The last 13 years I’ve been working to stop this.”
Milley was the one who wrote the language in the new law that caps the requirement age at 30. She actually fought against the 2009 requirements that only focused on college students living in dorms.
“I knew we were going to lose kids,” she said about why she was against the previous law. “I wanted them to expand it then and they didn’t.”
The new law is named the Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act. Williams, known as Nico, was living off-campus as a junior at Texas A&M University when he became ill in February with an aggressive form of bacterial meningitis, according to the Bryan College Station Eagle. His family fought for the legislation that resulted in the new vaccination requirement. Schanbaum, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, is a meningitis survivor who did not live on campus when she contracted the disease.
“Meningitis does not stop at the dorm room door,” Milley said. “It doesn’t discriminate. It can pop up anywhere and when it does it’s too late.
“This is the most deadly disease we vaccinate for. … Texas has the strongest laws for meningococcal vaccines at this point.”
In 2009, the law changed to get Texas more in line with CDC recommendations. Now, entering seventh-graders are required to have had one dose of the meningococcal vaccine, said Chris Van Deusen, assistant press officer at the Texas Department of State Health Services. Between that and a booster as a teenager and the new college requirements, Milley believes all children are protected from the disease, except infants. She is now focused on getting infant vaccines required as there are vaccines available for children as young as 2 months old.
That’s something Helen Barden, of Splendora, is also pushing for after seeing the effects of contracting meningitis firsthand. Her daughter, Sakura, lost her left arm, all her fingers and toes, her Achilles tendon, the tops of her ears and part of her intestine to meningococcal meningitis.
“I’m really glad other families won’t have to go through it because it devastated our family,” she said. “With everything our family went through, it’s nice to know other families won’t have to go through it because it’s a preventable disease.”
Meningitis is a disease caused by the inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord known as the meninges, according to www.cdc.gov. The inflammation is usually caused by an infection of the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis is also referred to as spinal meningitis.
Signs and symptoms of meningitis include high fever, headache and stiff neck, according to www.cdc.gov. These symptoms can develop over several hours or take one to two days. Other symptoms may include nausea, vomiting, discomfort looking into bright lights, confusion and sleepiness, according to www.cdc.gov. In newborns and small infants, the classic symptoms of fever, headache and neck stiffness may be absent or difficult to detect. Infants with meningitis may appear slow or inactive, have vomiting, be irritable or be feeding poorly, according to www.cdc.gov. As the disease progresses, patients of any age may have seizures.
“Right now, there’s a lot of controversy about the cost,” Milley said. “ … If you see the kids I work with, their life is one surgery after another. … Yeah, $100 is a lot of money, but a lot of us spend $100 on a cell phone or tennis shoes. It’s $100 versus your life or your face.
“To me it’s a no brainer.”
Nearly a decade ago, there was a local outbreak of bacterial meningitis with 12 cases confirmed in Montgomery County between Oct. 1, 2000 and Jan. 2001, including five cases in Conroe, three in New Caney, one in Porter, one in Spring and one in Magnolia, The Courier previously reported. The disease killed two county residents, 13-year-old Tanner Hurst of Magnolia, who died Jan. 15, 2001, and 14-year-old Christine Patterson of New Caney, who died Jan. 24, 2001.