Meningitis vaccine can literally help students survive college

Although several states have laws requiring all students living in college dormitories to receive the meningitis vaccine, those laws do not cover students living at home or off campus.

In May 2011, Texas began requiring the vaccine for all college students in the state, no matter where they live. A revision to the original law (which required only students living in dormitories to get vaccinated), the Jamie Schanbaum and Nicolis Williams Act requires all students entering Texas colleges or universities to get the meningococcal vaccine. The act is named after Texas students Jamie Schanbaum, who lost both legs and six fingers to the disease, and Nicolis Williams, who died from it.

Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges, the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There are several types, and the infection most commonly is caused by viruses or bacteria. Although meningitis can affect people of any age, it most frequently strikes adolescents and young adults between ages 16 and 21, according to CDC. This puts college-age students at a heightened risk.

Viral meningitis is usually less severe, and most people recover from it without any specific treatment and without any lasting side effects, according to CDC. Bacterial meningitis, however, is a much more serious illness. The disease is relatively rare -- CDC figures show that between 1,000 and 3,000 people nationwide contract the disease each year. About 10 percent of them die, however, and almost 20 percent of the survivors have long-lasting effects like deafness, brain damage or loss of limbs. The most severe type of bacterial meningitis is meningococcemia, which is caused by the Neisseria meningitidis bacteria.

There are vaccines for three of the most common bacteria that can cause meningitis. The Hib vaccine, which is named for Haemophilus influenzae type b, is administered to babies and has dramatically reduced the number of children under age 5 who are stricken by the disease.

The other types of meningitis vaccines are administered to adolescents and teens. CDC recommends that pre-teens receive their initial meningitis vaccine at 11 or 12, and then get a booster at around age 16, before entering the high-risk years. Young adults who miss these vaccinations should get a meningitis vaccine before they enter college.

Bacterial meningitis spreads through close contact with the infected person, which makes college students living in close quarters like dorms or apartments particularly susceptible. Although they are effective, vaccines can't prevent every case of meningitis. Its symptoms, according to CDC, can include a sudden onset of fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, vomiting and sensitivity to light. Anyone with these symptoms should consult a doctor immediately; prompt treatment with antibiotics provides the best chance of a full recovery.

Some schools have medical professionals come to campus to administer the vaccine to students who want it in exchange for a fee. For students with newer health insurance plans, meningococcal vaccines may be free. The federal health care reform law requires that insurance plans that began on or after Sept. 23, 2010, provide certain preventive services (including meningococcal vaccines) without requiring co-payments or deductibles, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

State laws vary when it comes to vaccinations for college students, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Depending on the state, students may have the option of waiving the immunization. Some states require colleges and universities to provide students with information about the vaccine, and some require that students sign a form indicating that they received that information. Others require schools to keep records of who has or has not received vaccinations.