Following recent studies documenting a higher rate of meningococcal disease on college campuses, the Williams College Health Center is strongly urging all students to receive vaccinations for the disease.
Although the disease only affects a fraction of the population, it is six times more likely to strike individuals living in a dorm setting.
Consequently, hundreds of universities and colleges across the United States are strongly pushing their student bodies to get vaccinated before peak season.
Over the last nine years, the incidence of meningococcal disease has drastically risen from one to more than two per 100,000 people within the 15-24 age bracket. The disease itself afflicts over 3000 people in the United States with a mortality rate of 10 percent.
Difficult to diagnose, meningococcal disease initially brings flu-like symptoms, which can rapidly mutate to coma and shock in a matter of hours. Unlike the flu, meningococcal disease can cause stiffness within the neck and a purplish rash on the trunk area as well. Without immediate antibiotic treatment, many individuals suffer brain damage, amputation of limbs or death.
Meningococcal disease is vastly different from meningitis. Whereas meningococcal disease is caused by bacteria, meningitis is viral and not usually life-threatening. Of the 3000 cases that occur each year, over 175 occur on college campuses each year leading to 15-20 deaths. As documented by recent studies, meningococcal disease is more common on college campuses due to students’ lifestyles and the close proximity in which they live.
“The incidence of meningococcal disease is very small,” said director of the Health Center Ruth Harrison. “The incidence does seem to be higher on college campuses, specifically in residential environments,” Harrison said, citing such factors such as alcohol, smoking and crowded living environments as possible reasons for the higher incidence rates.
Over the last decade, however, an efficient meningococcal vaccine has been available to the general public. Although it is short-lived, lasting only three to five years, the vaccination protects against four of the five strands of meningococcal disease, preventing 73 percent of all cases. Aside from tenderness within the arm, there are no real side effects to the vaccine.
Unlike other vaccines, the meningococcal vaccine is not free to Williams students. Like a majority of other colleges, Williams cannot afford to disperse the vaccine free of charge. According to Harrison, “If it was provided by the school free of charge, it would cover all of our annual budget.” Students must pay $60 for the vaccination.
Although the meningococcal vaccine is an important vaccine for college students, it is not required by Williams College or by the state of Massachusetts. After a couple of cases two years ago, Rhode Island has begun to require meningococcal vaccination. Following a series of cases within initial training camps, the United States military required the vaccination.
“I would love to require it but it isn’t something that the state requires,” Harrison said. “However, we will continue to strongly recommend [the vaccine] to all students.”
Although there have not been any recent cases on Williams campus, a student died from meningococcal disease seven years ago. This year, there have been two cases at UMass- Amherst and two cases in Connecticut.
According to Harrison, an increase in media coverage of the disease has spurred more Williams students to requested the vaccination. This year, approximately 200 students received the immunization, which is a sharp increase from last year. Despite the increase, Harrison, among others, is disappointed by the interest in the vaccine.
“As much as it is in the media, we still aren’t reaching everyone,” Harrison said. “I would hope that if there was a student for whom the cost was a concern, they would come talk to us. No student should not get the vaccine because they can’t pay for it. It is a lifesaving vaccination.”