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The Dartmouth
March 2, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

U.S. colleges debate mandatory vaccines

Six fatal cases of meningococcal disease this year - including the death of Dartmouth student Jenica Rosekrans '00 during Senior Week - have spurned a national debate over the need for colleges to mandate vaccines against the potentially deadly infections.

The American College Health Association strongly recommends students receive the vaccine, which is not currently required for most college students.

Dr. John Turco, director of Dartmouth College Health Services, said the College does not require students to be immunized, but strongly encourages them to do so.

Whether the vaccine will become mandatory is still under consideration, Turco said.

Mandating the expensive vaccine is problematic, Turco said, because people who are immunized can still carry the disease. Also, the vaccine does not protect against all strains of meningococcal bacteria. It does, however, include the strain which hit the College last term.

Turco said there will be no more mass inoculations this summer similar to those at clinics at the beginning of this term, although the vaccine continues to be available free-of-charge at Dick's House.

For students returning to campus in the fall, the vaccine will be available for a fee at Dick's House. "We are considering having a bigger vaccine clinic," he said.

Turco said the College's "organizational outbreak" designation will end at the end of the Summer term. "Organizational outbreak" is the standard terminology used when two or more cases occur in the same organization within three months.

"No longer would students be in the high risk group...if we had no more cases by the end of the summer," he said.

The risk of contracting a meningococcal infection for an average college student is one in 100,000 per year. For those in the high risk group, which Turco defined as graduate and undergraduate students on campus this summer, the chance increases to one in 10,000.

Over 1,400 students - over 80 percent of the targeted high-risk population - received the vaccine.

In a recently released study of meningococcal disease by the Center of Disease Control, freshmen living in a dorm have a slightly higher risk of contracting an infection than their non-resident peers.

Despite this study and a doubling of menigicoccal incidents in college-aged people since 1991, the College is not alone in the Ivy League in hesitating to call for mandatory meningococcal vaccinations.

Although a Cornell University student died of meningitis about five years ago, the school still does not require students to have the vaccine, Director of Nursing at Cornell Nianne Vanfleet said.

"There is some concern about the cost of the vaccine versus what it does for the whole population," she said.

Dr. David Rosenthal, director of Harvard University Health Services, said while a vaccination for meningococcal infections is not mandatory, Harvard is currently reevaluating its policy.

Rosenthal said the recent incidents at Dartmouth have made Harvard health officials more alert for meningococcal infections on their campus. "We're very concerned. There's lots of travel between Hanover and Cambridge."

Concerns about meningococcal infections on campus began during Senior Week with the death of Rosekrans and the subsequent, but not fatal, infection of Nicholas Calamari '01.

The meningococcus bacteria can cause meningitis (spinal column infection), bacteremia (blood infection), pneumonia (lung infection) and arthritis (joint infection). Symptoms of the bacterial infection include sudden high fever, chills, severe headache, stiff neck and back, painful joints, vomiting, extreme sleepiness, loss of consciousness, seizures and rashes.

Meningococcal bacteria are passed through intimate contact. The infection is spread through bacteria living in the throats of carriers, which make up a small percentage of the population. In rare instances the bacteria enter the bloodstream and cause illness.