Jamie Schanbaum gave a tear-filled testimony before the Texas Senate Committee on Higher Education on Wednesday, recounting her sophomore year at UT, when bacterial meningitis left her hospitalized for seven months.
She told senators how she felt flu-like symptoms one day that escalated to be life-threatening by the next. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill that would mandate all incoming students receive a meningitis vaccination prior to being able to register.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bacterial meningitis is a contagious infection that causes inflammation of the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord. It can have severe effects, including brain damage, hearing loss, loss of limbs and death.
Current law, passed last legislative session and inspired by Schanbaum’s experience, only requires incoming students who will live on campus to get the vaccine.
“Now, I’m here pleading for those who don’t live on campus,” Schanbaum said. “For those who disagree, maybe they just don’t realize what you go through.”
Davis said her motivation to file the bill came after the CDC released recommendations that college-aged individuals — those 17-21 years old — get a meningococcal vaccine because they are most at risk to contract bacterial meningitis.
New language added to the bill last week would add exemptions for students enrolled only in online courses and those over 30 years old. Davis said after discussion with UT, she also added leeway for students to have until the 10th class day of the semester to comply.
“Within this year, [a] student at Texas A&M, Nicolis Williams, passed away after contracting bacterial meningitis,” Davis said. “There’s a unique vulnerability between ages 17 to 21. Students entering a concentrated population have a unique vulnerability to the disease.”
There was some opposition to the bill. Along with several other community members, American studies senior Taylor Metting said that the law would infringe on the rights of those who want to attend college.
“While this bill may have good intentions, it is advocating forced medication without people’s consent,” Metting said. “This is blatantly disregarding individual liberty. This piece of legislation is unjust.”
Davis later stressed that the bill allows students to opt out if they have a religious reason or have documentation from a physician that the vaccine is harmful to the student.
The Williams family also testified and said the 20-year-old’s death was preventable. His health deteriorated over the course of three days, they said.
“The current law is incomplete and leaves thousands of students across the state who live off campus at risk of contracting the heinous disease that mutilates or kills within hours,” said Nicolis’ father, Greg Williams. “If [it] becomes law, no college student or their family will be subject to the devastation this disease causes. Untold lives will be saved.”
University Health Services offers the vaccine for current and admitted students for $127. Associate UHS vice president Jeanne Carpenter said that staff have begun meeting to discuss the implication of the possible legislation.
“Most likely, beginning spring 2012, a health bar will be placed on incoming student’s records that would prevent them from registering for classes until they have complied with the legislation, showing documentation of the meningococcal vaccination booster during the five years prior to enrollment,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said the law would serve UT as a preventative measure because it has not been a widespread issue in the past.
“We’ve had some exposures in the past,” she said. “[We’ve had] students who were attending an event where one person at the event came down with bacterial meningitis within a few days. The number of students that contract meningitis disease is very small.”