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Meningitis and other dorm scares

Vaccines for college kids

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Doctor giving patient vaccination
Blend Images/Ariel Skelley/Vetta/Getty Images
Is your child college bound? The pile of paperwork that arrives right around high school graduation includes a key piece of paper - a request for your child's immunization records. Colleges want to know that their students have been vaccinated against the basics - diptheria, tetanus, measles, mumps and rubella. But increasingly, they want to know that their students have been innoculated against bacterial meningitis too.

More than 30 states urge college-bound teens to consider the meningococcal vaccine and nine - including Pennsylvania, Kansas, Louisiana, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island - require the immunization for first-time college students living on campus. Pennsylvania, for example, prohibits unvaccinated students from living on campus.

Why the emphasis on dorm dwellers?

Anyone living in crowded, communal living conditions - dorms, for example, as well as fraternities, sororities and military barracks - are at significantly higher risk for bacterial meningitis than the general population. Add in unhealthy life styles - lack of sleep, unbalanced nutrition, exposure to alcohol and second hand smoke - and the risks rise. Teens who live in dorms are six times more likely to contract the virulent disease than teens in the general population.

A fast-moving, virulent bug.

Meningococcal meningitis is a fast moving, deadly bug that kills 10 to 13% of its victims within a matter of hours or days, and leaves severe repercussions - amputation, brain damage or deafness - for up to 20% of the patients who survive. The frustrating thing is that antibiotics can knock out the disease, but the early symptoms are so general - fever, malaise, rash and a stiff neck - most victims don't even realize they have it until they are very sick indeed.

Contagion and risk.

The disease is spread via bodily fluids: coughing, kissing or by sharing a water bottle or fork. It can infect the blood, or the fluid in the spinal cord or around the brain, and symptoms can emerge in a matter of hours or days. And it spreads so quickly, a patient can die in a few hours, even with medical care. It's that speed that alarms doctors and university officials. Only 125 college students contract the disease - and five to 15 die - each year from the disease. According to the American College Health Association, up to 80% of those cases could have been avoided with the vaccine currently recommended, Menactra, which guards against two out of the three most common forms of the disease in the United States.

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