It’s the time of year when many parents are preparing to send kids off to college; and among all the preparations, it’s important to remember one that can be a literal lifesaver: the meningococcal vaccine. In fact, as of Aug. 28, college students will be required by state law to show proof of vaccination against this potentially deadly disease.

Signed by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this month, the law states: Each student attending a public institution of higher education who lives in on-campus housing must receive the meningococcal vaccine unless he or she has a medical or religious exemption.

“This is a great piece of legislation, as it takes a proactive stance on meningococcal disease,” says Dr. Sandra McKay, a pediatrician with Mercy Kids and president of the Missouri chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “We know that (meningitis) is highly contagious and can be lethal, and patients can die within 12 hours of the onset of symptoms. Making sure that adolescents are vaccinated can help prevent the spread of this infection, especially for those in dorm halls, which is a risk factor for spread of the disease. It’s safe and works.”

Classic signs of meningitis include fever, neck pain, altered mental status and rash. However, studies show that as few as 27 percent of patients may have all the symptoms, McKay explains. “With this illness, it’s an abrupt-onset illness with rapid progression. Often, patients feel they have a severe case of the flu.”

However, this inflammation of tissue around the brain and spinal cord caused by the virus neisseria meningitides is not flu. It’s highly contagious and has an overall mortality rate of 13 percent. Infants and children in late adolescence are at highest risk.

“It’s been known for a number of years that the risk of meningococcal disease increases in people living in close quarters,” says Dr. Ed Anderson, research professor at Saint Louis University's Center for Vaccine Development. “Some of the original data comes from boot camps in the 1960s and '70s, when we still had the draft and lots of young men were being brought together in close quarters, and you would sometimes have meningococcal outbreaks. In more recent years, it has to do with data that showed that one of the highest risk groups were freshmen students living in dormitories.”

The rate of meningococcal disease has decreased from 1.1 cases per 100,000 in 1996 to 0.4 per 100,000 in 2005, McKay adds, in large part due to vaccination. “In general, the fatality rate is 15 percent with this infection; but in adolescents and elderly, the fatality rate is 24 per-cent,” she notes.

Meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MCV4) protects against four strains of meningococcal disease. Two doses of MCV4 are recommended for adolescents 11 through 18 years of age: the first dose at 11 or 12 years of age, with a booster dose at age 16.

“Parents need to understand that their children going off to college are at increased risk,” Anderson says. “This is recommended for a very good reason. It’s based on solid reporting by investigators and the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). The data is there, and these vaccines are extremely safe.”

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