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Meningitis vaccinations to be required for some students

Published: Friday, Dec. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

Parents of Illinois teens may want to plan a visit to health care providers in the coming months, as a new state law that mandates shots to protect against meningitis technically takes effect New Year’s Day.

State regulators will soon begin to implement changes to the state’s Communicable Disease Prevention Act, which Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law in August and requires that middle and high school students get vaccinated against meningococcal disease.

Vaccines for meningococcal disease have long been on the list of inoculations the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for adolescents. But while adolescent vaccination rates for the disease have risen in Chicago in recent years, public health experts say the new rules may come as a surprise to parents accustomed to booster shots being required only for younger children.

State legislators made the vaccine mandate effective Jan. 1, but state health department officials say the law won’t be fully implemented until at least six months after it establishes requisite administrative rules.

That means students entering the sixth and 12th grades of Illinois schools will likely need the extra booster shots by the 2015-2016 school year.

Students entering sixth grade who don’t opt out for religious or health reasons will need one vaccine dose, and two doses will be required for high school seniors who didn’t receive one shot when they were 16 or older.

State Rep. JoAnn Osmond, a Gurnee Republican who was one of the legislation’s sponsors, said the bill was partly designed to ensure that parents are aware the meningococcal vaccine is available for their children.

“Years ago you never heard about it,” Osmond said of the disease. “Now I guess it’s getting more and more prevalent. ... I was doing it for the fact that I wanted the kids to be safe.”

Recent outbreaks at Princeton University and the University of California at Santa Barbara grabbed headlines, with the amputation of one student’s feet in California and implementation of a campuswide vaccination campaign at the Ivy League campus in New Jersey.

And in 2008, a wave of illness linked to meningococcal disease in Chicago sickened about two dozen residents. Six died, according to the city’s health department, including two teenagers who lived in the Austin neighborhood. Six cases were reported in the Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods over a four-month period that year.

Infections that cause swelling in linings that protect the brain and spinal cord are often described by the public as “meningitis,” but the bacteria that cause meningococcal disease can spark other illnesses, including blood infections.

Kissing, sharing drinks and cigarettes or living in close quarters — any exchange of respiratory or throat secretions — can easily spread the bacteria, experts and the CDC say.

“I think we know those kinds of things happen in school settings,” said Dr. Julie Morita, director of the city health department’s immunization program. “To require (the vaccine) for school entry is totally appropriate.”

“It happens so quickly, it can happen to anyone. It doesn’t necessarily matter who it’s going to hit,” said Melissa Ponce, coordinator of EverThrive Illinois’ city immunization initiative. The organization helped lobby legislators to adopt the new law.

But Ponce said many parents with adolescent children aren’t aware of experts’ advice about a variety of vaccinations.

Since last year, Illinois middle and high school students have been required to have a Tdap vaccine, which provides protection against tetanus, diphtheria and the illness commonly referred to as whooping cough. Doctors say young adults also should be vaccinated against influenza and human papilloma virus.

Parents sometimes need to be reassured that vaccines are safe, Ponce said.

“You just show them one video or a story that’s happened to someone and they’re sold,” Ponce said .
Meningitis is treatable, but Ponce noted that patients can either lose a limb or die of the disease if complications set in.

For now, the state’s health board will hold public hearings on the coming changes to immunization laws. The bureaucratic process to conduct an administrative review and notify schools, parents and health care providers will follow.

“It’s a vaccine-preventable disease,” Ponce said. “It doesn’t have to happen to other teens.”

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