For the first time in 10 years, a new vaccine has been added to the requirements for Missouri schoolchildren. Students entering the eighth and 12th grades will need to have a meningococcal vaccine before school starts this fall.

Meningococcal disease causes meningitis, a highly contagious bacterial disease that starts with flulike symptoms of fever, fatigue and body aches but can escalate quickly to swelling of the brain and spinal cord. It can cause nerve damage and loss of limbs, and leads to death in 10 percent to 15 percent of patients. The disease can be treated with antibiotics if caught early, but the vaccine is the best way to prevent it.

With the new rule, Missouri joins a majority of states that have adopted the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Meningitis vaccines for children start about age 11 with a booster dose after age 16. Illinois started requiring the meningitis vaccine for sixth- and 12th-graders in 2015.

In the last decade, there have been an estimated 162 cases of meningococcal disease in Missouri and 23 deaths, according to the state health department. Between 1,000 and 2,600 Americans are infected each year.

“By requiring the meningococcal vaccination, we will help prevent deaths and life-long consequences for individuals contracting the disease,” said Ryan Hobart, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, which implemented the new rule.

Teenagers and college students living in close quarters are high risk groups for meningitis. The bacteria are primarily spread through the exchange of airway secretions and saliva through kissing or sharing cups, utensils or cigarettes.

“Once young people start gathering together, you want to vaccinate them when they’re first entering this high-risk age,” said Dr. Edwin Anderson, professor of infectious diseases at St. Louis University. “If we can prevent one serious illness or one death then I think we ought to use it.”

Missouri added the meningitis vaccine requirement for public university students before the 2015-2016 school year. Illinois has required the vaccine for public university students since 2002. The vaccine costs about $125 and is fully covered by most insurance plans or government programs for low-income families.

 Though private universities are not covered under the state laws, Lindenwood and Fontbonne universities do require the meningitis vaccine for students. Freshmen living in St. Louis University dorms need to get the vaccine or sign a waiver acknowledging the risks.

Washington University mandated the meningitis vaccine last year. Freshman Emily Benatar died of bacterial meningitis in 2012.

Alan Glass, director of student health services at Washington University, said they had 100 percent compliance in the first year of requiring the vaccine for entering freshmen.

A rarer strain of meningitis B not covered by the required vaccine has caused outbreaks at several colleges in recent years, including a current outbreak at Rutgers University in New Jersey. A meningitis B vaccine was rushed through the approval process for students at those colleges but lacks enough data for full CDC recommendation.

The kindergarten-through-12th-grade vaccination requirements in Missouri cover all students in public and private schools. The last vaccine added was for chicken pox in 2005. Medical and religious exemptions are available, but those students will be removed from schools if an outbreak occurs.

There are 400 students with vaccine exemptions in the St. Louis Public Schools, said Surilla Shaw, the district’s school nurse coordinator. The district sent out notices to parents about the new requirement for meningococcal vaccines.

Public health departments are preparing for an influx of students needing the vaccine, said Theresa Turnbull, immunization program manager for the St. Charles County Department of Public Health.

“It is a very serious disease and that’s what I’d like to get across to parents,” she said.

Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch