October 1, 2003

Read The E-mail: Meningitis Warning

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If you have not yet received an e-mail with the subject line “State-Mandated Student Health Requirement,” you will by early next week, and when you do, don’t hit delete.

Unlike other unwanted e-mail that clogs your inbox daily, choosing not to respond to this state-mandated health requirement by Oct. 31 will lead to a hold on your spring registration and financial penalties.

The e-mail, from Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, describes a new New York State law that requires every college student over the age of 18 to fill out a form stating that he or she has read (or has had read to them) information on meningococcal disease and has received the vaccine against the disease, plans to receive the vaccine or does not wish to receive the vaccine.

To date, 3,500 students have handed in completed forms to Gannett, according to Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Gannett.

“It’s an important law because college age individuals are statistically at greatest risk for meningococcal meningitis, so it provides information about the vaccination and its potential benefits, and leaves it to the individual himself to make an informed decision,” said Kristine Smith, spokesperson for the New York State Department of Health (DOH).

Meningococcal meningitis — not to be confused with viral meningitis — is a rare severe bacterial infection of the bloodstream that affects between 100 and 125 individuals on college campuses each year. Between five and 15 college students die each year as a result of infection.

“We think it’s really important for people to have knowledge of the disease and to know what they can do to reduce their risk,” Dittman said.

Meningococcal disease is spread through direct contact with infected persons, such as kissing, sneezing or coughing on someone, or oral contact with shared items such as eating and drinking utensils.

Dittman explained that 10 percent of individuals carry the meningococcal bacteria harmlessly in their mucus membranes at any given time.

“That’s how people develop such effective immunity against the bacteria,” she said. “But medical science doesn’t yet know why every year that small percent of the population goes on to develop the disease.”

While there is no conclusive evidence as to why people living together as in a college setting are at greater risk, there is a theory.

“When you bring together a group of people from diverse geographical areas, they have perhaps each been exposed to subtle variations of the bacteria that they have developed defenses against. But when you are living in a residence hall with people from Texas, Montreal, China … they may also have these defenses, but they may have a slightly different strain floating through their immune system,” Dittman explained.

Living in close quarters and sharing bathrooms and showers may put students at higher risk, but having a compromised immune system increases vulnerability.

“Students’ immune systems are under assault,” Dittman said. “For a freshman who is away from home for the first time, there are a lot of stresses. They are probably not exercising as much as they used to, not eating right, and not getting enough sleep. Most people who get this disease are people who are already fighting some other illness.”

One hundred and twenty-five cases of meningococcal disease on college campuses each year is actually a very small number, considering the number of colleges and college students in the U.S, according to Dittman.

“People think that because it’s spread like a cold or flu, it must be more common than it is,” she added.

Dittman is concerned though that students will get the wrong message from the e-mail and will think that meningococcal disease is a greater threat to their health than other diseases or behaviors.

“When you get this information from the state that says, ‘this is the most important thing we are going to communicate to you,’ we’re concerned about what message that sends college students. While we agree it’s a health condition people ought to know about, we are also very concerned about mental health and students’ sexual health, their eating habits, and students’ relationships with alcohol, tobacco or other substances.”

Of the reason New York State’s DOH is emphasizing meningococcal disease to college students as opposed to other infectious diseases, Smith, DOH spokesperson said, “In terms of other recommended immunizations, you hear about most of them before you enter kindergarten. This is new so it’s important that the people who are most affected by the law are informed of it.”

The legislation emphasizes vaccination against the disease. The vaccine is 85 percent effective against four subtypes of the disease. It is available at Gannett for $80.

Students can additionally reduce their risk by protecting themselves from other people’s saliva and mucus and maintaining overall health.

Over the last five years, there have three cases of meningococcal disease at Cornell, none of which were fatal. The most recent case occurred in 2002 in a twenty-one year old female student.

Archived article by Stacey Delikat