Meningitis vaccine: Good intentions with serious consequences

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by JANET ST. JAMES

WFAA

Posted on January 12, 2012 at 11:26 PM

DALLAS - Student orientation classes at El Centro College are much smaller than expected.

Administrators suspect a new law requiring a meningitis vaccination may be to blame for fewer new students. Enrollment in the Dallas County Community College district as a whole is down nearly four percent.

At Brookhaven College, it dropped 9.1 percent. Northlake college has seen a 7.7 percent decline.

College officials had predicted numbers would far surpass last year. Lower enrollment means millions of dollars in lost revenue.

"Aside from looking at the money factor," said El Centro Dean of Students Fela Alfaro, "what you're looking at is the human capital. The student that is not potentially getting access to the opportunity to change their life."

Alfaro says El Centro has granted temporary waivers to hundreds of students who've been unable to get vaccinated. Many uninsured students can't afford it.

In fact, a regular-priced dose of meningitis vaccine costs an average of $150. That price is higher than three credit hours at El Centro, which runs about $135.

The Dallas County Community College District has seen a drop of 547,974 paid credit hours.

"This is not just a Dallas problem," said Dallas County Health Department Director Zach Thompson. "We're seeing it in Harris County, we're seeing it in Tarrant County. There's clearly not enough of the low-cost meningitis vaccine."

Dallas County ran out of a limited supply of $10 doses the state provided last week. Thompson had ordered 50,000 doses. They have only received about 6,000 so far.

Pamela Chavarro had to borrow money from her brother for a full-price dose.

"I only had $100, and I needed another 50, and he said, 'Go ahead and take it," Chavarro said.

She didn't have to spend it when 2,000 doses of the low-cost shots unexpectedly arrived at the health department.

"But effective January 31st, we've been told that there will no longer be any of the low-cost meningitis vaccine, and the cost is going to be $150 here at the Dallas County Health Department and more at other facilities," Thompson warned. "And can you imagine next fall, when fall comes around, there's going to be 100,000 students or more that need the vaccine in order to enroll."

No one seems sure how long colleges can legally delay enforcement of the law. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which provides guidance for enforcement, is considering the potential long-term consequences. The Texas Department of Health says it will reevaluate whether to extend the low-cost "safety net" meningitis vaccine after Jan. 31.

Unless the state intervenes, some suspect the unintended consequences of a bill designed to save the lives of college students will keep them out of class, instead.

E-mail jstjames@wfaa.com

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