Vaccinations, in the time of COVID
By Dr. Maria Fletcher
We are currently at the precipice of school starting again, at all levels, and the vast variety of what that could look like this fall. Between e-learning, attempts at socially distant classrooms, some hybrids, some “parent’s choice,” teachers of vulnerable age retiring early and everything in between, there are no easy answers or common guidance.
Since mid-March, Americans have been living in what truly is a “new abnormal,” all part of a larger effort to stay safe and stop the spread of coronavirus. As a physician, I have witnessed the anxiety, the misery and distress of those touched by COVID-19, and I’ve felt the effects myself of experiencing this global pandemic from within the medical community, on my campus and in my community. We all wish there were existing measures to detect, cure and prevent this virus — especially a vaccine so that we could protect ourselves and those we love. With a vaccine, school could resume as usual, we could go out to eat, hug our friends, celebrate weddings, go back to work and countless other activities we once viewed as everyday.
And most importantly, so many lives could be saved.
Although this is a “never before in our lifetime” event, COVID-19 is not the first infectious disease that instilled fear and uncertainty in the world. Think about measles, polio, small pox and mumps. In time, required vaccinations have kept all of us, and especially our children, safe from experiencing the resurgence of these infectious diseases.
I am a physician who works in a university health center, but more than that, I am a mother. It is my priority to put protocols in place to ensure that our college students are protected while on our campus. We may be waiting yet for a COVID-19 vaccine, but there are other health threats we can protect against right now. One particular vaccine-preventable infectious disease is meningitis B.
While meningitis B is rare (50–60 cases/year; 5–10 deaths per year), 10–15 percent of those infected will die as quickly as 24 hours after the start of symptoms (fever, headache, stiff neck, rash & confusion). Those who survive may have long term disability like hearing loss, brain damage, other neurologic deficits, kidney problems, loss of limb and skin scarring. Like COVID-19, meningitis B is highly contagious. It spreads easily from person to person and university students are particularly vulnerable because they live together in dormitories, share drinks and eating utensils, they kiss, and they may cough without covering their mouths. The vaccine against meningitis B has only been available since 2014. Previous to that, the only meningitis vaccine was against other strains, and this vaccine has been routinely given to children at ages 11–12 with a booster at age 16.
I am alarmed to hear that since 2011, 100% of Meningitis outbreaks in college campuses have been due to the B strain. One hundred percent! And yet, federal and state health departments and most universities have stalled in adding the meningitis B vaccination to the required list of vaccinations. It isn’t a question of whether it’s right or wrong to vaccinate. Most universities and colleges already require students to receive the meningitis conjugate vaccine to protect them against the other strains. The men B vaccine is widely available, so why has the CDC been slow to require this vaccination before starting college?
For the past five months, we have found ourselves worrying regularly if the person behind us in line at the grocery store, or the one who delivers our carry-out, or the runner we pass in the park is putting us at risk for COVID-19. We have seen our country totally shut down and we have drastically limited our activities. Many of us are reassured that health experts around the world say that a vaccine against this novel coronavirus is the ONLY way to protect our health and restart our economy.
If we have learned something from our current experience with this pandemic, we should agree that if there is an effective vaccine in place, we should seriously consider taking it to protect ourselves and our families. From a science and data perspective, it is the best, safest option for allowing us to open up more and more of the economy. I hope that new attention to the great value of vaccines will also cause colleges to rethink their requirements, and include men B. College students are at the prime of their lives with many dreams and aspirations. We need to empower them to live, learn and love knowing that they are protected from all vaccine-preventable diseases.
Maria V. Fletcher MD is a Family Medicine Physician with Butler University Health Services