They kiss, they share water bottles, they live in tightly packed dormitories, and so they are at a higher risk of getting meningitis, a potentially fatal disease, than many other sectors of the population.
That’s why New Jersey has just become the 38th state to require college students to be vaccinated against bacterial meningitis as a condition for attending an institution.
Gov. Phil Murphy signed bill A-1991 on Jan. 14, endorsing a law that advocates hope will prevent outbreaks of the rare but potentially deadly disease on college campuses.
“Meningitis is an extraordinarily dangerous disease that’s spread through casual contact,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union), one of the bill sponsors. “It can kill you, and it can also maim you for life.”
She said a typical college dorm lifestyle that involves sharing water glasses, silverware and bathrooms is more likely to spread meningitis than other settings such as crowded commuter trains or offices. “Even if you work in a close space, you don’t tend to kiss your co-workers,” she said.
Although high school students may experience similar living conditions, they are already covered by a program that vaccinates them at about 12 and then again at 16. The new law aims to prevent the disease in the older age group.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacterial meningitis is “very serious,” and can result in death within a few hours, as well as permanent brain damage, hearing loss and learning disabilities. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, stiff neck and fever, and risk factors include gatherings of large groups of people such as college campuses, the CDC said.
Meningococcal disease cases
There have been 17 cases of meningococcal disease, none of them fatal, among students at New Jersey colleges between 2013 and 2019, according to the state Department of Health. In February 2019, two students at Rutgers-New Brunswick were found to have meningococcal serogroup B, the most common kind, which accounts for more than half of all cases for 16- to 20-year-olds, DOH said.
At Princeton University, nine cases of the disease were reported between March 2013 and March 2014. The college later said that 98% of undergraduates had been vaccinated.
Dr. Mary Campagnolo, chair of family medicine at Virtua Health Mansfield, said she supports the new requirement to vaccinate college students, who are at higher risk if they live in dorms than those who live in other accommodations.
She said the presence of students from other states or countries also increases the risk that different strains of meningitis will spread. There’s evidence that outbreaks are more likely to happen at the start of a college year when students arrive from areas where they have come into contact with the bacteria.
“It’s pretty rare, but nobody would want their child to contract meningitis,” she said. “It’s not frequent but if it does happen, it can be devastating.”
Asked why she thought the bill had become law despite strong recent protests against other forms of vaccination, Campagnolo said its passage may reflect the fact that most college students are age 18 or older, so parents are less likely to influence them over whether to be vaccinated.
To reduce the chances of getting infected, Campagnolo urged students to wash their hands frequently, avoid sharing kitchen utensils, and get vaccinated.
‘Vaccines don’t kill people’
For her part, Munoz argued that anti-vaccine protesters are a “small part of the population,” but that their loud protests may exaggerate their influence. In fact, she said, most people support vaccination because it saves lives, and there’s no evidence that it’s unsafe, as claimed by opponents.
Widespread vaccination will prevent the spread of meningitis as well as the return of diseases like polio, which affected her father, Munoz said.
“We protect people who are less likely to be able to protect themselves through their own immune system,” she said. “Anti-vaccinators are doing a great disservice to the public. Vaccines don’t kill people, the diseases do.”