How Can We Stop Meningitis Outbreaks On Cramped College Campuses?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

A man receives a meningitis vaccine

Eight students at Princeton University and four at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) have been infected with confirmed cases of bacterial meningitis. Officials at both schools, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control, have taken extraordinary measures to prevent the nascent outbreaks from spreading. For instance, UCSB has suspended social events throughout campus and federal officials have taken the unusual step of allowing Princeton to vaccinate thousands of students using an imported meningitis vaccine that protects against the specific strain making its way through campus, even though the shot has yet to receive U.S. approval.

The deadly disease kills 14 percent of the people it infects and leaves one in five survivors with lasting physical and mental damage. And preventing it from breaking out on crowded college campuses in the first place may require more robust vaccination requirements for college attendees.

College students are particularly susceptible to bacterial meningitis. According to the National Meningitis Association (NMA), “[c]rowded living conditions (such as dormitories, boarding schools and sleep-away camps), moving to a new residence, attendance at a new school with students from geographically diverse areas, going to bars, active or passive smoking, and irregular sleeping patterns” are all common college lifestyle factors that also expose students to contagions like the meningitis bacterium and compromise the immune system. It follows that young people aged 16 through 21 have the highest rates of meningitis infection in the nation.

Medical professionals say vaccinations as the number one way to prevent meningococcal bacteria from spreading. The CDC recommends all children aged 11 to 12 should get the MCV4 conjugate meningitis vaccine, as well as a booster shot between the ages of 16 and 18. The agency also advises colleges and universities to require incoming students to have been inoculated within the past five years.

But state laws haven’t kept up with the CDC’s recommendations. According to the Immunization Action Coalition, only 15 states and the District of Columbia require proof of meningitis vaccination outright. Oregon, New Mexico, Hawaii, Idaho, Utah, and eight other states don’t require colleges and universities to force incoming students to provide proof that they’ve been vaccinated or provide them with any educational materials about the meningitis vaccine.

State lawmakers may be hesitant to adopt stricter standards on vaccines, but studies suggest that’s the prudent thing to do. The shot is about 85 percent effective against four out of the five most common strains of meningitis. A vaccination against the fifth strain — the one that infected students at Princeton — is expected to receive U.S. approval in the near future.

Simply providing educational materials to students can go a long way, too. A study published in the Journal of American College Health compared immunization rates among first-year Brown University students from the classes of 2003 and 2004. The class of 2004 was given vaccine educational materials before they arrived on campus, while the class of 2003 was not. The result? Immunization rates on campus spiked from a meager 13 percent among the class of 2003 to 46 percent among the class of 2004 and 60 percent for the class of 2005.

“Education about the benefits of meningococcal vaccine before students’ arrival on campus increased both the number of immunized students and the overall immunization rate among students,” concluded the study authors.