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Meningitis Vaccine Rules Scaled Back at Colleges

Fewer college students will be required to have meningitis vaccinations, and new rules also make it easier for some students to opt out of the vaccinations. This story is part of our 31 Days, 31 Ways series.

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With the Legislature reducing the number of college students who are required to receive meningitis vaccinations and making it easier for some to opt out, a number of community college administrators say they are better equipped to ensure a smooth implementation of vaccination requirements.

In 2011, legislators passed a law that required every college student to get meningitis vaccinations — the first measure of its kind in the country. But for many institutions, particularly community colleges, it proved difficult to implement.

Legislators revisited the law this year and passed Senate Bill 62, which takes effect Oct. 1 and changes the age requirements, among other tweaks.

Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Texas Association of Community Colleges, said the first semester in which schools implemented the 2011 law was “mayhem.”

The rule required any new student younger than 30 who took classes on campus, including those who lived off campus, to be vaccinated or to submit a form opting out for medical or religious reasons. It was an expansion of a previous law that had only applied to students living in campus dorms, which are less common at two-year institutions.

There was particular confusion about dealing with students who arrived to classes without the necessary shots, especially when the sudden demand for the vaccine created a shortage in supply.

“No one knew exactly what the requirements were,” Johnson recalled. “Did you have to bar students from admission? Some institutions did, some didn’t. And then there was all this chaos about the availability of the vaccination.”

While much of that chaos leveled out over time, Johnson said community colleges view the changes to the law as one of their most significant legislative victories in 2013.

Most significantly, under SB 62, only students younger than 22 will have to be vaccinated. Lawmakers reduced the age requirement because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people between the ages of 16 and 21 face the greatest risk for meningitis.

The average age of community college students in Texas is about 26, and many students only come to campus for a small number of classes. “That helps take out the biggest chunk of that commuter kind of student,” Johnson said. “That’s really the biggest thing.”

The bill requires the Department of State Health Services, the only agency that can grant exemptions, to create an online portal for community college students to apply for an exemption. The form must include a statement indicating that, as the bill put it, "the student understands the benefits and risks of the immunization and the benefits and risks of not receiving the immunization."

“We have so many students who come in a day before class,” Johnson said. “This will make sure our students can come in, hop in on the computer, and can fill out the form.”

Though it eases the vaccination requirements, supporters of the 2011 bill, which was carried by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, did not fight the changes.

“Aligning the law with the CDC recommendations will ensure that those most at risk are protected from this devastating disease,” Anna Dragsbaek, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, said in a statement.

According to the Immunization Partnership, more than 4,000 Americans contract meningitis, an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, each year. For roughly 10 percent of them, it proves fatal.

The 2011 measure was named for Jamie Schanbaum, who lost both legs below the knee and most of each of her fingers after a bout with meningitis during her sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin, and for Nicolis Williams, who died suddenly from the disease while living off campus at Texas A&M University.

Patsy Schanbaum, Jamie's mother, supported the new bill. And Greg Williams, Nicolis' father, testified on the bill, registering neither support nor opposition. Both have worked actively to raise awareness about meningitis.

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