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Back-to-school supply gap for meningitis shot

/ Source: The Associated Press

As move-in day for freshmen approached, Linda Echols took stock of health supplies at Swarthmore College and thought she had plenty of the latest meningitis vaccine.

But as the date drew closer, she looked more carefully and saw the vaccine had expired. She frantically called doctor's offices and hospitals to try to get some before freshmen started piling into dormitories on Tuesday, but had no luck.

"It's like the flu shot — they create a demand that they can't meet," said Echols, director of the campus health center.

The government recommends the vaccine Menactra, which prevents a form of bacterial meningitis, for college freshmen in dorms and younger children. With manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur struggling this year to keep up with the need, some students and colleges have found the vaccine harder to find.

In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that more than 8 million U.S. children get vaccinated against meningitis.

Several states, including Massachusetts, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland and Louisiana, have enacted laws in recent years requiring the vaccine for college students. In Pennsylvania, college students living in dorms must either be vaccinated or sign a waiver saying that they chose not to and understand the risks.

Supply gap

"Everybody knew, because of the way people get vaccines, that there could be a gap in the supply and demand in this back-to-school time frame," said Donna Cary, a spokeswoman for Sanofi Pasteur.

The company plans to manufacture 6 million doses of Menactra this year and 7 million next year. "The problem is ... we can't ship it all in August," Cary said.

Menactra, licensed by the Food and Drug Administration last year, provides more effective protection for more years — about eight — than the older vaccine.

Close quarters in dorms

Meningitis affects relatively few people, but college freshmen have the country's highest rate with about five cases per 100,000. Group living in close quarters makes it easier to spread.

The disease is rare but devastating. There are about 300 meningitis deaths a year in the United States. Those who survive often suffer severe complications, such as organ failure and tissue damage requiring amputation.

Alice Gray, director of the immunization program at the Pennsylvania Health Department, said more people are finding out about the vaccine this year, leading to spot shortages nationwide.

"It took off very quickly and a lot more quickly than Sanofi thought it would, I believe," Gray said. "Their manufacturing didn't quite keep up."

Nevertheless, many schools say that they are able to meet the demand and state officials believe there will be enough supplies.