New push to change college immunization requirements

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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) -- There's a new push to change college immunization requirements after the 2002 death of a UW-Madison student due to meningitis B.

It's been almost 16 years since Eddy Bailey succumbed to the disease, but his mother wrote to universities this year asking them to require meningitis B vaccinations.

Both UW-Madison and UW-Green Bay say they don't require the shot, but urge students to talk to their doctors about the vaccine.

In about two weeks, UWGB will be buzzing with new energy and new students as they move into the dorms.

"We have 2,000 students that live on campus with us," said Amy Henniges, director of Counseling and Health Center at UWGB.

To help students adjust to their new way of life, they go through freshman orientation. It includes a handout on important topics; including vaccines.

"We highlight it. It's on our website," said Henniges. "We send out an informational letter to students where we also recommend that their vaccinations be up to date and current and to work with their provider."

"Actually," Henniges added. "As a condition of enrollment, there aren't any vaccines that are mandated or required."

Although students are not required to get vaccines to attend UWGB, there is one vaccine in particular that UWGB draws attention to in its freshman handbook. The book devotes an entire page to meningitis B, which is transmitted through respiratory and throat secretions.

"One of the at-risk groups includes college students; especially first-year college students who live in residence halls, because there's crowding, lengthy interaction with people who live in these kinds of conditions and so they tend to be what we call at-risk groups for this infection," said Brian Merkel, associate professor of human biology at UWGB.

Meningitis B infects the linings of the brain and spinal cord. If left untreated, it can result in death, but even treatment doesn't guarantee 100 percent recovery.

"Even those that survive, 15 to 20 percent of survivors are left with disabilities; including brain damage," said Merkel. "So again, I think this only underscores the importance of being proactive and the importance of vaccines."

Because meningitis B is caused by a bacteria, only antibiotics will help. Students at UWGB are doing their part to help find new antibiotics.

"It's something called Tiny Earth, the Tiny Earth Initiative," said Merkel. "Essentially they (students) go out into the field, look in different soil environments for bacteria producing new antibiotics; which we desperately need because at this time antibiotic-resistant bacteria represent a world crisis."

Although UWGB is at the forefront of antibiotics research, both Merkel and Henniges say vaccines are your best line of defense.

"Many of these vaccinations you can start as a younger child, so to think about them before you even get to college and have that immunity already started is awesome," said Henniges.

"Vaccines have an incredibly great record when safety is concerned, and it is our best weapon when we talk about prevention," said Merkel.

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