updated 2/10/2005 6:42:30 PM ET 2005-02-10T23:42:30

All college freshmen who live in dorms should be vaccinated for meningitis, a government panel recommended Thursday for the first time, reversing policy of the past.

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The panel is also advising doctors to give the shot to all 11-to 12-year-old children and that it be provided to at least 4 million children eligible under the federal children’s vaccines program.

Because each dose is expected to cost about $100 and only 3,000 cases of meningococcal meningitis are reported each year, “it won’t save money,” said Mark Messonier, an economist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who helped develop a cost-effectiveness study of the plan.

“It is a strategy that will save lives,” he said.

About-face from previous policy
The new recommendation is an about-face from previous policy and was sparked largely by a new vaccine, Menactra, made by Sanofi Pasteur. The new vaccine is effective for more than eight years, while the old vaccine lasted for just three to five years. The old vaccine also didn’t prevent people from being carriers of the bacteria; the new vaccine does.

The action will be welcome to parents of college students since meningitis can spread rapidly through college dorms. And it will ease the mind of Lynn Bozof of Marietta, Ga., who has been lobbying for such action.

Her 20-year-old son Evan died of bacterial meningitis in 1998 when he was a student at Georgia Southwestern State University.

Hours after complaining of a headache, he was hospitalized. He died weeks later after suffering complications including damage to his brain, lungs and liver, and amputation of all of his limbs.

Had her family known about the vaccine, “Evan would definitely have been immunized. He would be alive today,” Lynn Bozof said.

“If this were a more minor illness, no, I couldn’t justify it,” said vaccine panel member, Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “But this is such a morbid disease, it causes such disruption. Every time there is a case, communities panic, it closes schools down.”

“I don’t want that to happen to any child — yet you have to be able to pay for it,” he added.

Cost-effectiveness issues
Over the years, many health and school officials were reluctant to recommend vaccinating all children because of cost-effectiveness issues. This time there was no opposition to the action of the panel, which advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new shot will become available to doctors next month.

“I feel very strongly that this is the right way to go,” said Dr. James Turner with the American College Health Association, which had opposed recommending the vaccinations until the new drug became available.

“This is an exciting day for those of us who work in college health.”

The type of meningitis that spreads through college dorms typically kills only about 300 Americans each year, infecting the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Since it is spread through contact such as kissing, sharing kitchen utensils and sneezing, people who live in close quarters are most at risk.

'Don't take a chance'
While all military recruits have been immunized since the 1980s, it wasn’t until college outbreaks of meningococcal meningitis in the late 1990s that health officials started offering the shot to college students, although it did not have the endorsement of the CDC.

College freshmen who live in dormitories are six times more likely than other people to be infected with meningitis, the CDC said. They have the country’s highest rate of the disease at 5.1 cases per 100,000.

While the disease is rare, it is devastating. Those who don’t die from it often are left with severe complications, such as amputations or brain damage.

Faith Hoenstine of Imler, Pa., was 14 when she contracted bacterial meningitis. She thought she just had the flu, but her condition worsened and she spent six months in the hospital. Both of her legs above the knee, her left arm above the elbow and her fingers in her right hand were amputated.

“Don’t take a chance — get the vaccine,” urged Hoenstine, now 18 and a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, Pa. “If there’s anything you can do to prevent something from happening to yourself, why not do it?”

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