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The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

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Meningitis scare prompts vaccine discussion

Despite concern over a meningitis case in Thurston Hall late last week, the University will continue to refrain from mandating the vaccine for incoming students.

Under D.C. law, universities must require their students to be vaccinated for tetanus, mumps, rubella and chicken pox before entering college. However, 20 states have legislation requiring students to either receive a vaccination for meningitis or be informed about the consequences of the disease prior to enrollment.

The meningitis vaccine does not protect against viral meningitis, which landed the male GW student in the hospital Wednesday night. Viral meningitis is not contagious nor can it be prevented.

The meningitis vaccine prevents against four strands of bacterial meningitis, including meningococcal – the most dangerous form of the disease.

Protection against the sometimes deadly meningococcal meningitis is not required by the District.

University physician and Director of Student Health Administration Isabel Goldenberg said GW does not mandate the meningitis vaccine mainly because it is not required by law.

“When you give a public health recommendation there are many things that go into it – cost, how long it lasts, risk of having a problem and how compliant (students will be),” Goldenberg said. “It’s loaded, difficult.”

She also said 90 to 95 percent of the population would have to comply with the rule in order for the vaccine to be effective, which would be tough to enforce because it is not mandated by law.

“You don’t know how many parents say they don’t want their children to be immunized for basic immunizations,” she said.

However, the University strongly recommends students get vaccinated for meningitis. Currently, 60 to 70 percent of students have received the vaccine, Goldenberg said.

The University offers vaccine clinics at the beginning of every semester for $85. They will be given in Thurston Hall on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and in the Hall on Virginia Avenue on Wednesday from 4 to 7 p.m. The vaccinations remain effective for three to five years.

Goldenberg said the clinic was planned before last week’s case and that the timing was a “coincidence.”

Other universities in the District, including Georgetown and Howard, have similar policies to GW’s in that they only recommend immunization.

GW has never seen a case of meningococcal meningitis but has had two to three cases of viral meningitis each year, Goldenberg said.

In most of the 20 states with meningitis legislation, universities must only make their students aware of the dangers of the disease. However, in states including Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, all students must be vaccinated or sign a waiver acknowledging the seriousness of the disease and releasing the university from liability. Regulations apply to just public or public and private universities, varying from state to state.

Maryland passed a law in 2000 requiring all students planning to attend a Maryland public university to receive a vaccine or sign a waiver acknowledging its severity and releasing the University from liability.

About 20 percent of incoming freshmen in Maryland received a meningitis vaccine prior to the legislation, but once the law passed 90 percent got the vaccine, said an official from the Dowell Health Center at Towson University in Maryland on the condition of anonymity.

Before the vaccine was mandated, a Towson student died of meningococcal meningitis. The university community administered treatment to about 500 students who were in close contact with the student, including students at certain bars on specific dates.

At the University of Maryland, a student contracted meningococcal meningitis about three years ago, said Sacared Bodison, the University of Maryland’s clinical health director. She said the student survived and those in close contact with the student received preventative medicine.

Bodison said she does not agree with the mandatory vaccine because “people can be educated about it – told about the vaccine as well as the limitations of the vaccine.”

Although the vaccine protects against four out of five strands of bacterial meningitis, the fifth – which the vaccine cannot prevent – is rather common, Bodison said.

The University of Minnesota saw a death from meningococcal meningitis this past spring after a failed vaccination, said Edward Ehlinger, chief health officer of Minnesota’s Boyton Health Center. He said the vaccine is “not 100 percent effective.”

Although he called the case a “tragedy,” the university’s vaccination policy did not change.

“The cost of immunizing, from a public health perspective, is not justifiable,” Ehlinger said. “Regardless of who pays … to vaccinate all freshmen would cost about three quarters of a million dollars. Should we spend three quarters of a million dollars to potentially prevent one death? This is the first death … (anyone) can remember for a long time.”

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