After several meningitis B outbreaks at New Jersey college campuses in recent years — one that lead to the death of a visiting student — state lawmakers are advancing a measure to better protect young adults pursuing higher education.
A legislative panel on Thursday approved a bipartisan proposal that would essentially require residential students at four-year colleges to receive some form of the “MenB” vaccine, a relatively new immunization that helps protect against the highly infectious and potentially deadly bacterial disease. New Jersey is one of at least three-dozen states that already required college kids to be inoculated against other forms of meningitis, but that vaccine doesn’t ward off type B.
The bill (A-4009) would update the 2004 meningitis vaccine law to reflect new advice of experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; it does not specifically mandate any specific treatment. The CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommended in 2015, and has reiterated since, that adolescents and young adults receive the MenB vaccine as well. The more common forms of the disease – types A, C, W, and Y – are covered by a single shot.
“Meningitis is a potentially deadly disease that can easily spread among people living in close proximity, like college dorms,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz, (R-Morris), a bill sponsor. “Since there are different strains, it’s important for students to receive both vaccines,” she said. “The CDC is the lead agency for tracking communicable diseases and updating recommendations. It makes absolute sense to follow its guidelines to better protect students and others.”
Munoz joined Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen), the Democratic conference leader, to introduce the measure a year ago in June, just months after Rutgers University declared a meningitis outbreak when two undergraduates at the New Brunswick campus were diagnosed with the disease several months apart. The students were treated, and recovered; the university implemented a precautionary policy requiring all incoming and returning students to get a MenB vaccine — in addition to the usual meningitis shot — before returning to school last fall.
(As of May, Rutgers is “no longer considered an outbreak setting”, according to a message on the university’s website. Officials thanked students for taking the warnings seriously, urged them to continue to practice good hygiene, and recommended they discuss the need for a MenB vaccine with their physician. Additional information about the vaccines can be found on the state Department of Health website.)
The Rutgers outbreak involved a different strain of the bacteria than emerged at Princeton University in 2013 and 2014, which sickened seven students and a visitor. At the time, the MenB vaccine was not yet licensed for commercial use in the United States, but university officials received federal permission to set up a special campus clinic to distribute the vaccine, according to reports. Still, the infection killed a Drexel University student who contracted the disease while on campus.
“Our goal is to create a proactive policy that follows the CDC’s recommendations in order to ward off potential outbreaks in the future,” Sumter said. “Not only will this help protect students against this potentially deadly virus, but it will also help limit the fear, panic, and confusion that often accompanies an outbreak.”
According to the CDC, symptoms of meningitis include a sudden onset of fever, headache, and stiff neck and can sometimes involve vomiting, confusion, and sensitivity to light; symptoms are not always visible and are easily confused with signs of the flu. The bacterium is spread through saliva and respiration — such as sharing drinks and food, kissing, living in close quarters — and can infect the lining of the brain and spinal cord, or the bloodstream. Patients can suffer permanent brain damage, loss of limbs, or other complications; without any treatment (involving antibiotics) they can die within 48 hours.
After passing the Assembly Health Committee on Thursday the MenB proposal awaits a vote before the full Assembly. An identical measure, introduced in February by Sens. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), the longtime health committee chairman, and Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), has yet to receive a hearing.