By La Monica Everett-Haynes
Short of a state law requiring Texas college students to be vaccinated against meningitis, several area schools are stepping up efforts to make sure their students receive the shot when they arrive on campus next month.
"It's such a deadly disease, a very quick-moving and acute disease," said Emily Page, director of the Wellness Center at Rice University. "We want to be pre-emptive and proactive to teach students how to take care of themselves. "
College students are at particular risk of contracting the contagious and sometimes deadly illness because they share close quarters and items such as towels, cigarettes, drinks and dishes.
A string of deaths on college campuses in recent years has heightened concern and awareness of bacterial meningococcal meningitis.
Overall, statistics show that about 3,000 people become ill with meningitis in the United States each year. Of those, about 400 people die, including 125 who are college students living on campus, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Viral meningitis is more common than the bacterial form and is much less likely to cause severe illness or death; most people who get it recover on their own.
Bacterial meningitis is often difficult to diagnose early, when antibiotics are most effective, because its initial symptoms resemble the flu. As the illness progresses, it can cause hearing loss, brain damage and death.
Just this year, a reserve on the University of California women's basketball team died in January after contracting bacterial meningitis.
Two months later, a student at the University of Hawai'i died with a bacterial infection associated with meningitis.
And in April, a Rutgers University student succumbed to the illness.
Mandatory vaccination Across the country, at least 15 states have decided to make the vaccine mandatory for incoming college students and those who live in dorms.
In Texas, colleges and universities are only required to provide students with information about meningitis. Yet some campuses have decided to do more.
Next month, Rice will again hold a clinic in partnership with Maxim Health Systems to make the vaccine available to students during the first week of school.
Last year, some 100 students got the shot and the goal is to vaccinate even more this year, Page said.
One of the obstacles, however, is cost. The vaccine can cost between $70 and $90, and not all insurance companies will pick up the bill. Rice charges its students $90 for the shot.
"It's not the cheapest of activities," Page said. "But we do believe it's worth the investment."
Another college, Texas State University-San Marcos, initiated a campuswide vaccination program three years ago, charging students $85 each for the shot.
In the program's first two years, nearly 1,350 students received the shot, said Karen Gordon-Sosby, assistant director of the Student Health Center at Texas State. The school is planning another one-day clinic Aug. 23.
"Even though it is a rare disease, because of the severity we're doing the extra step," she said.
Floyd Robinson, director of the Student Health Center at the University of Houston, believes more students would get the shot if they knew about the illness.
"With all the information out there, it's so amazing because people still have only the basic questions about meningitis," Robinson said. "We get kids who say, 'I got an $80 check in the mail, and I'm here for the men-in-whatever it is.' "
Throughout the year, UH students can pay $71 to be vaccinated at the campus clinic whose staff holds regular chat-sessions about meningitis in the classrooms and dormitories.
During the past decade, the number of meningitis cases in Texas has varied from 237 in 1994 to 96 cases last year.
But lower numbers shouldn't mean less vigilance, according to John Walker, an assistant medical director with the Texas Health Department in Austin.
"I'm hoping that it doesn't go back up in 2004," Walker said.
Which is why education is essential, he said.
"People are interested in some huge, high-tech solution that requires a lot of money," Walker said.
Yet good personal hygiene ? washing hands and covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing ? reduces the chances of contracting meningitis, he said.
But Frankie Milley of Houston believes the best strategy to prevent the illness would be a state law requiring college students get the vaccination.
Her only child, Ryan, died of meningitis in 1998.
Two days after his death, Milley learned about the vaccine that could have helped prevent the illness in her 18-year-old son, who had recently graduated from New Caney High School.
"Daily, there are people who are left debilitated from this disease. We see it time and time and time again," said Milley, founder of Houston-based Meningitis Angels and Earth Bound Angels, Inc. "Nobody should have to go through the devastation of losing a child or being a person who is debilitated because of it."
Milley has been lobbying lawmakers in support of a bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in March. Should it pass, all students living on the nation's college campuses would be required to get meningococcal vaccinations.
Kathy Nguyen, an incoming junior at the University of Houston, decided not to wait until a law is passed.
She said she was prompted to get the shot at the urging of family and friends but never realized the potential severity of the illness until this week.
"I had heard about it but knew nothing ? only that it would make you really sick," said Nguyen, 20, who was vaccinated Thursday at the Augusta Family Medicine clinic in Houston.
Now she plans to encourage those around her to get the shot.
"I'm going to tell all my friends to take it," she said. "It's just good prevention."