North Texas
7:54 pm
Mon August 8, 2011

Focus on Health: A Shot In The Arm For Coeds

Dallas, TX – College freshmen across Texas are preparing to move into dorms over the next couple of weeks. They'll need sheets, towels, laptops and, perhaps most importantly, a meningitis shot. In today's Focus on Health segment, BJ Austin says the shot is required by state law.

In August three years ago, Jamie Schanbaum packed her car in Dallas and headed to Austin for her freshman year at UT. It was cut short by what she calls a nightmare.

Jamie Schambaum: Came down with meningitis ended up staying in the hospital for seven months where I had my legs below the knees and my fingers amputated.

Meningitis infects the membrane around the brain and spinal cord, and can spread through the bloodstream. Meningococcal, or bacterial, meningitis is fatal in nearly 25% of college-age cases.

Don Murphey: It is a devastating disease.

Dr. Don Murphey is a pediatric infectious disease physician at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth.

Murphey: You can lose fingers and toes. You can lose arms and legs. You can go into kidney failure, strokes. You can have deafness or weakness afterwards.

Symptoms may include high fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, fatigue and sometimes a purple rash.

Meningococcal meningitis is spread through sneezing, kissing and other close contact. But doctors say it is harder to catch than a cold. We carry the bacteria in our noses and throats - most of the time without getting sick. But, when the illness strikes, it comes on fast. Jamie Schanbaum was doing laundry on a Wednesday afternoon and felt like she was getting the flu. By early the next morning she was in intensive care.

Schanbaum: In the first few weeks I was definitely under high medication and when I would look down I noticed that my limbs were becoming black, becoming necrotic.

Jamie says it was explained to her that her body, to protect vital organs, basically shut down blood flow to the extremities.

Patsy Schanbaum, Jamie's mother, started lobbying state lawmakers for a meningitis vaccination law while Jamie was still in the hospital and rehab.

Patsy Schanbaum: I was watching my daughter going through this I said this shouldn't happen to anyone else.

In 2009, the Texas Legislature passed the Jamie Schanbaum Act. All college students living in dorms must be vaccinated for meningitis. The National Meningitis Association says students 17 to 21 are especially vulnerable to infection. Childhood vaccinations, without a booster, have weakened. And infection risk is greater because of crowded dorm life with people from diverse areas. In 2010, an Aggie freshman living off-campus contracted meningitis and died. That sent Patsy back to lawmakers during the 2011 Legislative session.

Patsy Schanbaum: We were able to amend the law and make it mandatory for all college kids to be vaccinated.

Under the new Jamie Schanbaum/Nikolis Williams Act ALL first-time and transfer students under age 30, living on campus or off, must be vaccinated beginning January, 2012. The bills' sponsor, Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, says private colleges and universities are also adopting the policy.

For the fall semester starting in a couple of weeks, new students living in dorms must present proof of vaccination 10 days before move-in. That's the time frame for the vaccine to become effective. Without it, university officials say students are not allowed to move in or go to class.

Cost for meningitis vaccine is generally around 120 dollars, depending on the provider. Doctors, campus clinics, drug stores, and county health departments give the shots. They're covered by CHIP, Medicaid and some private health insurance plans.

Dr. Murphey says the cost of the vaccine is little compared to the consequences of the disease.

Email BJ Austin

National Meningitis Association
Texas Department of State Health Services