The needle is in and out in a second. I let my breath return to its normal pace, and I’m given a Tweety Bird bandage as a reward for my maturity.
A few weeks ago, I was working at 90.5 WESA when my doctor called me to recommend I receive the meningitis B vaccine, which protects against a bacterial strain not covered by the vaccine many people my age received in high school.
Meningitis strikes fast, causing inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that could result in seizures, disability or death.
I scheduled an appointment immediately, but my doctor’s call raised a question: Are all college students aware that they need to protect themselves from meningitis B?
“You walk into the emergency room. You collapse in shock and before the day is over you’re dead," said Dr. Michael Green, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. "This is a highly virulent, high-velocity illness that can take someone whose previously well and that can leave you dead or significantly impaired in a matter of hours or days.”
For many students, living on campus seems quintessentially college, but meningitis can spread easily in spaces like communal bathrooms.
Green said meningitis B historically has not been associated with college outbreaks, but a growing number of meningitis B outbreaks in American universities has sparked research on the vaccine.
Outbreaks have been reported at five college campuses since 2013, with 42 cases of meningitis cropping up this year, according the National Meningitis Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A study published in July by the New England Journal of Medicine documented researchers’ attempt to stop an outbreak at Princeton University in 2013.
“It raised the question, was there anything we could do for this. There was a vaccine that was licensed in Europe," he said. "This led the FDA to approve the special use of this vaccine in an effort to attempt to prevent the epidemic from continuing.”
They found that over 95 percent of students inoculated developed protective antibodies against the non-outbreak strain.
Most universities already require students living on campus receive a certain meningitis vaccine which protects against strains A, C, W and Y. Bacteria varies by strain and may affect people differently, Green said, but all cause the condition meningitis.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two vaccines last year, but accessibility to treatment remains an issue, according to Green.
Insurance companies don’t have to cover the new vaccinations due to their category B recommendation with the CDC, said Marian Vanek, director of Student Health Services at the University of Pittsburgh. Schools can only suggest protection; they can't require it.
“There is strong interest that we can provide this and mandate this at some point, but to expect students to pay $300-plus out of pocket is difficult," Vanek said. "(Pitt) is doing what probably many other universities are doing at this point, which is making the recommendation and hoping the CDC will change their advisory practice.”
In a written statement, a CDC representative said their recommendation means it’s up to clinicians to suggest to young adult patients that they receive one of the two FDA approved meningitis B vaccines.
My doctor reminded me to get the vaccine, but for students who don’t return home during breaks, or may no longer attend a pediatrician, they may not be receiving the same alerts.
Vanek said at a recent meeting of student health leaders across the nation, many asked why CDC leaders weren't more concerned.
“If they change the recommendation from a category B to a category A recommendation, most likely insurance companies will follow suit and provide coverage," she said. "Once that happens, I think accessibility will be increased significantly for students and basically for anybody.”
Highmark Senior Medical Director Marylou Buyse said insurers already cover every A and B recommendation made by the U.S. Preventative Task Force under the Affordable Care Act, including existing meningitis B vaccines.
One-third of people who get meningitis contract strain B, and one-tenth of those die or become disabled, Buyse said.
"Whether it’s A or B, it’s still recommended. Sometimes you just need time to accumulate the evidence,” she said.
As classes resume, university health centers are preparing to make students aware of the vaccine, Vanek said. Because college students may not visit a clinician regularly, she said that it’s up to the school to inform young people about their ability to choose whether to get vaccinated.
My arm has been sore for five days now, a typical side effect of the vaccine, and I have to return to the office for a second dosage a few weeks from now.
It feels like a lot of responsibility, but for me, the step was worthwhile.
Health care coverage on 90.5 WESA is made possible in part by a grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.