Take it from a survivor, young people must get vaccinated against meningitis
Originally published in the Dallas Morning News
Ten years ago, while a sophomore at UT Austin, Jamie Schanbaum experienced common flu-like symptoms. Hours later, she was deathly ill with meningitis and spent the next seven months in a hospital bed. By the time she was released, she had lost her lower legs and most of her fingers.
Seven years ago, while a junior at Texas A&M College Station, Nicolis Williams contracted meningitis and died within hours. The process was so quick his family didn't get the chance to say goodbye. Nicolis' family was left to mourn his shocking and sudden death.
We, a survivor and her mother, and a surviving father have worked with the Texas Legislature, governors, state agencies, vaccine advocacy organizations and huge universities to pass and enact laws requiring all college students to be vaccinated against meningitis. Our wish is for no other college student to experience the pain and grief we have endured.
Since Texas passed legislation in 2011 that required meningitis vaccinations for all students entering college, the state has seen a dramatic drop in cases of the deadly disease. College campuses are notorious hosts for meningitis. Young adults are already among the groups most at risk, and living in close quarters increases the chance of the disease spreading.
Not only is meningitis deadly, but it is also expensive to treat because hospitalization for one case often costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Meningitis does not occur frequently. According to the National Meningitis Association, approximately 600 to 1,000 people contract the meningococcal disease in the U.S. each year. Of those, 10-to 15 percent die. Among those who survive, 1 in 5 live with permanent disabilities (such as brain damage, hearing and kidney function loss, and amputation of limbs). Twenty-one percent of all meningococcal disease cases occur in preteens, teens, and young adults ages 11 to 24.
We should not rest until vaccine-preventable diseases like meningitis are eliminated. Sweat and so many tears have influenced public policy, resulting in fewer deaths, less suffering and fewer mourning parents. The decrease in meningitis in Texas is a public health success story due to the many heroes among our students and university administrators.
As cases of meningitis have declined, some may not fully understand the devastating impact of the disease. The Daily Texan, the student newspaper of the University of Texas at Austin, recently reported that 68 students on campus this academic year declined to be vaccinated against meningitis for reasons of "conscience." In Texas, thousands of college students — mostly older adults at our community colleges — are choosing not to protect themselves, their families and their classmates against this potentially fatal disease.
Some students cannot be vaccinated because of medical reasons. However, students choosing to opt out of necessary vaccines risk infecting themselves and others. We shouldn't let anything keep us from being educated about vaccines (quadrivalent and meningitis B) that protect us from all strains of meningitis.
Protection could save lives and prevent permanent disability. Every physically able student entering college should be vaccinated against meningitis. There have been far too many lives and limbs lost, and many more tears shed.
Jamie Schanbaum is a meningitis survivor and advocate, and a U.S. Paralympian.
Patsy Schanbaum is president of The J.A.M.I.E. Group (Joint Advocacy Meningitis Information and Education) where she also serves as national and global spokesperson for the Confederation of Meningitis Organization.
Greg Williams is president of The NICO Williams Foundation, a nonprofit bacterial meningitis advocacy organization, and the author of the book Dare to Ask God Why.