June 7, 2011

New Texas law expands requirement for meningitis vaccine for college students

Now all incoming college students must be immunized to attend classes.

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All incoming Texas college students must be immunized against bacterial meningitis starting in January under new guidelines recently signed into law.

First-time students of public and private colleges who live on campus already must be immunized against the disease, which can be deadly to young people living in crowded quarters such as dormitories or military bases.

But the new Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act, authored by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and honoring victims of the disease, expands the requirement to all college students. Davis said existing law left too many students vulnerable.

"It's a devastating disease," Davis said. "It hits and does its damage within a matter of hours."

Davis pointed to the recent death of Texas A&M University student Nicolis Williams. The 20-year-old wasn't required to get the vaccine because he didn't live on campus.

Williams died just three days after complaining of flu-like symptoms, his father, Greg Williams said in news reports. He pushed to end the gap in the vaccination guidelines.

"We extended it so all students entering the college system have to have the vaccine," Davis said.

Dr. John Shelton, assistant medical director at the University of North Texas Student Health and Wellness Center, said the type of meningitis targeted by lawmakers is caused by Neisseria meningitidis.

"If you have the meningitis from it, it is very serious," Shelton said, explaining that it has a 10 to 15 percent fatality rate and about 10 to 20 percent of people who survive have serious disabilities.

"You can lose your hands and feet," he said. "You can go deaf from it."

Young person's illness

About 1 in 20,000 people gets the disease every year, Shelton said. Peak incidence is typically in the 16- to 25-year-old age group. Symptoms include severe headache, fever and vomiting, Shelton said. A person can grow sicker and end up in a coma, he said.

Shelton said incoming freshmen or transfer students who need the vaccine can check availability by calling their college health departments, private doctors or local public health department. UNT offers the vaccine for $116. Students can visit the health department anytime, he said.

Students can potentially miss class if they don't have verification by the first day of the semester, according to the law. About 2,000 incoming UNT students are expected to be affected by the new law in the spring 2012 semester.

Colleges and universities are working to implement the rules. At UNT, a task force will look at enforcing the law in time for its effective date, said Elizabeth With, vice president for student affairs.

"I anticipate it will be part of the application process to the university -- I can't say definitively," With said, adding that in the past it was tied to student housing applications.

Under the current rules, UNT students who didn't comply weren't allowed to live on campus, With said.

"We had very few who didn't abide by the rule," she said.

The University of Texas at Arlington is still evaluating the changes, but officials said that they had good compliance with the earlier rules, said Kristin Sullivan, a university spokeswoman.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

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