With a recent recommendation by a government panel on vaccinations, incoming college freshmen may have one more thing to worry about — getting their meningitis shots.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation last week for many people aged 11 to 18 to receive the new meningitis vaccine Menactra, placing special emphasis on college freshmen living in dormitories — where the rate of infection is nearly five times the national average.

While meningococcal infections are rare in the general population, striking only 3,000 Americans each year, the illness progresses rapidly and may lead to brain damage or death in 10 percent of those infected.

The new vaccine from Sanofi Pasteur replaces Menomune and confers longer-lasting immunity but at a higher cost — $80 to $90 a dose.

With the sudden increase in demand for the vaccine, Menactra’s manufacturer worries it may not be able to synthesize the drug quickly enough to meet demand, according to The Associated Press. Over the next two to three years, as new factories are constructed to meet demand, there may be a shortage of vaccines available to entering high school and college students. This year, Sanofi Pasteur predicts the availability of just over 5 million doses.

At the University, “the vaccine will be rationed to the people with the highest need, that is, freshmen living in residence halls,” said Robert Winfield, director of University Health Services.

Epidemiologists believe the tight living quarters in dorms facilitate close contact between students, which contributes to the high rates of infection, according to a CDC advisory committee in a 2000 issue of Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Winfield said UHS is prepared to deal with possible shortages of Menactra. He said UHS maintains stockpiles of Menomune, adding, “The rate of infection decreases substantially after freshman year.”

CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices issued the recommendation in response to findings in the past decade that showed rates of meningitis infection were substantially higher for college students.

A 2001 paper in The Journal of the American Medical Association concluded, “Freshmen who live in dormitories have an independent, elevated risk for meningococcal disease compared with other college students.”

This massive vaccination strategy adopted by the CDC parallels a similar effort in the United Kingdom where a variant of the disease, meningitis c, was sharply decreased, according to a report by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. The goal of the vaccinations is to eliminate “herd infection.” “Herds,” or age cohorts, tend to congregate, harboring and spreading infection among their members. By targeting individuals 11 to 18 years of age, the CDC hopes to create an inoculated age group that will impede the transfer of disease to future generations.

“If you can get enough people immunized, you break the cycle of outbreaks,” Winfield said.

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