“Immunization is your best weapon,” Dr. Ratard advises.

Louisiana’s epidemiologist urged university officials Thursday to require meningitis vaccinations for incoming freshmen, an action that state lawmakers are now considering.

“Immunization is your best weapon. It’s easier to prevent meningitis than it is to deal with an outbreak,” Ratard told university officials from throughout the state who attended a forum, hosted by the University of Louisiana System, in Baton Rouge.

The UL System developed the forum to help universities deal with meningitis, such as the cases that occurred this winter at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Ratard said new vaccines protect up to 98 percent of people and offer more protection than previous vaccines. He said the new vaccines should be effective for at least five years.

Meningitis starts with flu-like symptoms, but Ratard said it is not like the flu, which spreads through casual contact. He said persons at greatest risk are those in close, personal contact, such as people living in the same household or dormitory.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disease strikes up to 3,000 Americans every year. Up to 15 percent of people with meningitis suffer long-term permanent disabilities including hearing loss, limb amputation or brain damage. Students who live in dormitories or apartments are at increased risk because of their close, personal contact.

Dr. Sally Clausen, ULS President, cautioned her colleagues, “When meningitis strikes a university, its effects are profound and widespread. We must do everything we can to protect our students.”

Ratard said he is pleased with the UL System initiative. "The outbreak earlier this year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette illustrates the link between meningitis and college students. Also we have worked together on legislation that would require vaccinations for college freshmen.”

Connie Koury, general counsel for the Louisiana Board of Regents, said House Bill 154, by State Representative Mike Strain, would require first-time freshmen in Louisiana’s colleges and universities to be vaccinated for meningitis, beginning this fall. In certain cases, students may waive the vaccine, but they must sign a form, attesting that they have received and reviewed information about the disease. The bill was passed by the House of Representatives on Wednesday and has moved to the state Senate for consideration.

Koury said as of 2004, 32 states had some type of meningitis legislation addressing vaccinations of students, but very few states mandated the vaccinations without exceptions. “Most states allow waivers of various kinds,” Koury said.

Several UL-Lafayette officials joined Dr. Tina Stefanski of the Lafayette region Office of Public Health, to describe the university’s challenges during a meningitis outbreak in January and February when two students died and four others contracted the disease.

The officials described the steps they took after the first call at 5:55 a.m. on January 27 from a hospital emergency room, reporting that a university student had died of meningitis. The second student death was reported on February 9. In those and other cases reported, university and public health officials immediately contacted persons who might be at risk.

The university established a website and released information through mass e-mails and the media to inform people about the disease, its symptoms, warning signs and prevention. The university also encouraged anyone with symptoms to seek immediate medical help.

“We worked closely with the Office of Public Health which administered antibiotics and provided more than 6,000 doses of vaccine to help prevent the disease’s spread among those groups of persons at risk. We used a variety of ways to directly reach everyone on campus and offered direct counseling for students. Our website also provided information for citizens everywhere,” said Julie Dronet, director of public relations and news services at UL Lafayette.

“The key was to give concise information that everyone could understand,” said Joey Pons, UL Lafayette’s director of environmental health and safety.

Loyola University officials from New Orleans told a similar story about the death of a student in February. “We had already gone through Hurricane Katrina, and this was another shock to our university community,” said Robert Reed, director of residential life at Loyola.

Reed said university staff and counselors met with students and provided information through a variety of ways about the disease, its symptoms, treatment and prevention. In addition to e-mails, media notices and other communications, the university provided antibiotic treatments and vaccinations to students who wanted them and who were at risk.

Vicki McNeil, Loyola’s associate vice president for student affairs, said the university now requires meningitis vaccinations for all entering students and for all students who live on campus. “We are making meningitis vaccinations mandatory, beginning this fall of 2006. During the past five years, we had encouraged all students to be vaccinated, but vaccinations weren’t required.”

Officials from Southeastern Louisiana University, Northwestern State University, and LSU described campus-based education programs designed to inform students about meningitis.

Vera Williams, director of Southeastern’s Student Health Center, said the university aggressively informs students about meningitis through a variety of ways. “For example, we constantly play a video about meningitis in our health center to make students aware of the vaccine. We now average 40 vaccines a month, and that average is rising.”

Stephanie Campbell, director of Northwestern’s Student Health Center, said the university, among other things, sends letters to students and their parents, educating them about the disease and advising them of the availability of the vaccine through the university. “We also set up an information table whenever large groups of students are gathered for events.”

Dr. Timothy Honigman, medical chief of staff of LSU’s Student Health Center, said his staff takes every opportunity to educate students about the disease, including presentations at student orientations. “We haven’t had a case in two years, and we feel very fortunate.”
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