COLUMBIA — Beginning next summer, students living on all Missouri public university and college campuses will be legally required to be immunized against meningitis — a requirement already in place for the the University of Missouri System.
The mandate was a provision of Senate Bill 716, which Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law Thursday.
The new requirement will begin in July 2015 and apply for the 2015-16 academic year. Students are able to opt out for religious or health reasons.
State Sen. Gina Walsh sponsored the measure.
"My provision protects both students and, by extension, the general public from the spread of a deadly disease," Walsh said in a statement.
As with the new law, MU students have had the option to opt out for religious or health reasons.
"This is nothing new for the University of Missouri," said Scott Henderson, medical provider director at MU's Student Health Center.
Meningitis is a bacterial infection that causes the lining of the brain to swell. It spreads through the "exchange of respiratory and throat secretions," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meningitis' flu-like symptoms develop quickly and can be fatal. Ten percent to 15 percent of meningitis cases result in death, according to the National Meningitis Association. One in five survivors of the disease lives with permanent disability, such as brain damage.
Meningitis is rare. It is less contagious than the germs that cause the flu or the common cold, and fewer than 1,200 Americans contract meningitis every year.
Young adults ages 16 to 21, however, are at an especially high risk, according to the CDC. Communal living situations, such as college dormitories, increase the rate of spreading the disease. A meningitis outbreak at Princeton University in March 2013 spread to eight students, and a death at nearby Drexel University was traced back to the same strand.
In December 2013, four students at the University of California at Santa Barbara contracted meningitis within a three-week period. One student had both feet amputated as a result of the disease.
Missouri's statewide meningitis vaccination rate for ages 13-17 was 54.6 percent, according to the 2011 National Immunization Survey. The national average was 70 percent.
"This statute is among the most important steps to take in protecting college student from meningitis," said Kristin Sohl, a pediatrician at University Hospitals and Clinics. It's "very important for Missouri because we have so many opportunities for higher education."
Texas enacted a similar law, requiring the vaccine for incoming college students, in 2012. Thirteen other states require students to be educated about the risks of not being vaccinated.
The vaccines cost $130 each, said Sharon Rudder, a pharmacist at Gerbes.
Brent Butler, a governmental affairs officer at the Missouri Insurance Coalition, said the vaccines should be covered by most health insurance.
"I don't know why there would be anything unique that would exclude the vaccines from coverage," he said. "I imagine they're the same as tetanus shots."
The vaccine is already widely available and administered frequently to children, Sohl said. The risks associated with the vaccine are no different than any other immunization.
“I see it as opportunity to really protect young adults who are at risk for fatal disease,” Sohl said.