The state legislature approved a bill yesterday requiring Maryland college students to be vaccinated against meningococcal disease or sign a waiver saying they have been told about the disease and decided not to receive the shot.
No "nay" votes were recorded yesterday when the bill passed the Senate, and only one was recorded during the House of Delegates vote several weeks ago. The lack of dissent can be attributed to recent deaths and public concern about the disease.
Six meningitis-related deaths have occurred on Maryland campuses in the past three years. The House Environmental Matters Committee heard testimony on the bill a year after Jesse Gardiner, 18, died of the disease at Frostburg State University in February 1999. The Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee heard the bill two days after Joseph "Pat" Kepferle, a Towson University freshman, died of the disease last month.
"It just came together at the right time," said Del. Mary M. Rosso, the Anne Arundel County Democrat who sponsored the bill after a friend of her aide's son died of the disease. "It was just that it was needed. It was time."
The bill's success was a first for the freshman legislator. She said none of her earlier bills had made it out of a House committee.
The bill, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign, requires Maryland college students living in on-campus dormitories to be vaccinated against meningococcal disease or sign a waiver. The student's parents or guardians would have to sign the waiver if the student is a minor.
The current vaccine is effective against four of the five most common strains of the disease. Researchers are trying to develop a vaccine for the fifth variety.
The vaccine in use takes effect in 10 to 14 days and is good for three to five years. Though the vaccine offers protection from the disease, it does not prevent a person from carrying the disease or possibly passing it on to others. A dose of the vaccine costs $60 to $90.
Meningococcal disease is exceptionally virulent and fast-acting, and is able to shut down vital organs in a few hours. Kepferle, the Towson freshman, died within three hours after being admitted to the hospital.
The disease can be spread through contact with an infected person's saliva, such as through sharing glasses or cigarettes. Researchers suspect the close conditions of dorm life increase the risk of contracting the disease.
Jeannette Hadfield, associate director of the student health service at Towson University, applauded the legislative action. She said more than 3,500 students live on campus and many are just beginning to understand the danger. About 1,000 students showed up to be vaccinated the week after Kepferle's death.
Hadfield said colleges are also beginning to realize what military officials have known for years: that the close quarters of dormitory life can foster meningococcal disease.
A Johns Hopkins University and Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene study completed last year found the incidence of meningitis cases among Maryland college students was three times higher for students living on campus than for those living off campus.
Last year, the state health department recorded 55 cases of meningitis in Maryland. Eleven of those cases were fatal.
Behind those statistics are mothers and fathers whose children died, and a young woman who lived to tell her tale to the senators and delegates.
"The testimony was so compelling," said Rosso. "It was just heart-rending to hear the fathers talk about their sons and how they lost them."
For 19-year-old Kathleen Ashby of Anne Arundel County, supporting the bill meant reviving memories from the fall of 1998 when she almost died of the disease. She is a Towson University student who lived on campus.
She went to Annapolis twice to testify. Rosso cautioned her not to get her hopes up. She was testifying for a first-time bill, and those bills usually go nowhere. Ashby, her mother and father, and the parents of two other young men who died were undeterred.
"It was hard to hear the stories of the kids who didn't survive," Ashby said. She went to Broadneck High School with Gerry Case, who died of the disease three years ago while attending Loyola College. "It was tough, because I feel so lucky."
The bill will take effect June 1.