Menigitis vaccines required by schools

Bob Groves and Bob Groves

HACKENSACK, N.J. — For the price of a pair of sneakers, John Kach probably could have saved his fingers and legs.

Kach, a college student in Rhode Island, believes vaccination against meningitis would have kept him from contracting the bacterial illness — most likely in his dormitory — that led to the loss of his limbs four years ago. If only he had gotten that shot, which costs about $85.

“I went to the doctor’s office for a physical. They recommended getting vaccinated, but they didn’t have vaccine at the office,” Kach said during a recent teleconference sponsored by the federal Centers for Disease Control and the National Meningitis Association.

“I figured, meningitis, whatever … I went to school and didn’t get (immunized) there,” he said. “I played basketball, had a good time. I didn’t get to it. I regret it.”

Every year, about 125 college students like Kach contract meningitis, and five to 15 of them die. The risk of dying is six times higher for students in dormitories, particularly freshmen, according to the American College Health Association. Up to 80 percent of those college cases are preventable with vaccine, the organization said.

In general, the vaccine is 85 percent to 100 percent effective in preventing meningitis in older children and adults.

This year, New Jersey joins 30 other states that require all freshmen and transfer students who plan to live in college campus housing either to be immunized against meningitis — which New Jersey’s law does — or to be educated about the disease, before they start school.

New Jersey and Connecticut have the toughest college meningitis immunization state laws in the country, according to the National Meningitis Association. Rep. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., has sponsored a similar federal bill in Congress.

New Jersey’s law will affect about 37,000 students living in dormitories at four-year colleges, said Marilyn Riley, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health and Senior Services. Last year, there were 29 cases of meningitis in New Jersey, including seven victims between the ages of 18 and 25 years old, Riley said. Four of the 29 patients — all men, and ranging in age from 23 to 72 years old — died.

There have been 20 cases of meningitis in New Jersey so far this year. Six people have died, including a 5-year-old girl who died in July at a day camp. Fellow campers and workers were given antibiotics as a precaution, and there were no other cases.

Meningitis is a form of meningococcal disease that inflames the membranes of the brain and spinal cord. Another form, meningococcemia, infects the blood. Meningococcal disease strikes about 2,500 Americans every year, causing death in up to 15 percent of cases.

The deadly, contagious bacterial bug is carried in small droplets. It can be spread by a kiss, a cough, a drink, a smoke, a sneeze — especially in close quarters, such as a college dorm. Bacterial meningitis can cause brain damage, hearing loss and learning disability.

There is also a viral form of the disease, which is less severe and usually resolves without specific treatment.

John Kach, the Rhode Island college student who survived meningitis, had a far more severe case. One day in 2000, Kach was in his dorm when he developed flu-like symptoms that included vomiting and a 104-degree temperature. When he was no better the next morning, his girlfriend took him to a hospital.

He developed red and purple blotches on his arms and back. A blood test showed he had 10 times the normal number of white cells, which fight infection. His lungs and kidneys were shutting down.

“My blood was curdling, like milk,” recalled Kach, who developed gangrene in his hands and legs. Eventually, doctors had to amputate most of his fingers and both his legs below wthe knee.

“The possibility of meningitis is reduced. It’s one less thing to worry about,” he said. “It’s only $80. It’s a pair of sneakers.”

There is no grace period, once school starts, for dormitory residents to get their shots, said Joan Cann, a nurse and patient care coordinator at Fairleigh Dickinson in Teaneck, N.J.