By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chris Wilson believes his nephew would still be alive if his college had required him to get a meningitis vaccination.
Middle Tennessee State University freshman Jacob Nunley died last year less than 24 hours after contracting meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord.
“That’s the most difficult thing to deal with,” Wilson said, “the fact that the vaccination was there. All he had to do was get it.”
Currently, MTSU and most other public colleges and universities in Tennessee only recommend getting the vaccination to prevent the contagious disease.
Tennessee lawmakers are hoping to prevent deaths with legislation that would require incoming students at public higher education institutions to show proof they have gotten a meningitis shot. The bill would exempt students if a doctor says they can’t take the vaccine because of a medical condition or if the inoculation violates their religious beliefs.
The measure passed the Senate last week and is nearing a vote on the House floor.
“The purpose of the bill is to help save lives,” said Senate sponsor Lowe Finney, a Jackson Democrat whose district includes Nunley’s hometown, Dyersburg.
The legislation, called the Jacob Nunley Act, comes at a time of heightened awareness about meningitis.
According to the state Health Department, seven cases of the meningococcal meningitis were reported in Tennessee last year. Of those cases, one resulted in the death of the patient. One case has been reported so far this year, and that person also died as a result of the disease.
The National Meningitis Association says the meningococcal disease strikes nearly 1,500 Americans each year and roughly 11 percent of those infected will die. Meningococcal meningitis can be spread through such contact as sharing drink bottles. Ten percent of people who contract the disease die — sometimes within 24 hours, as Nunley did.
Last fall, Tennessee saw a deadly outbreak of fungal meningitis, with 14 killed and 150 sickened. Those people were treated with tainted steroid medication from a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy. Although the vaccine wouldn’t help people who get the rare fungal form of the disease, the outbreak has raised awareness of how deadly meningitis can be.
Those cases, as well as Nunley’s, have spurred a bipartisan effort in crafting the meningitis legislation.
Republican Sen. Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro had proposed a similar measure but withdrew it and signed on as a co-sponsor to Finney’s bill.
“At the end of the day, it’s not Republicans or Democrats when it comes down to your kids dying,” Ketron said.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh agreed.
“From time to time good government transcends politics, and this may be one,” said the Ripley Democrat, whose district includes Dyersburg.
When someone has meningococcal meningitis, the protective membranes covering that person’s brain and spinal cord become infected and swell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The symptoms include a sudden fever, headache, stiff neck, as well as nausea and vomiting.
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said getting the vaccination is important because students may downplay the severity of the disease by equating it to cold or flu symptoms.
“They tend to just take to their bed; they don’t think it’s very serious,” Schaffner said. “And only when students don’t show up for social activities, or class, do their classmates frequently seek them out and find them semi-comatose in bed. This is a disease that can come on very suddenly, and then progress very rapidly to a life-threatening circumstance.”
David Gregory, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said students shouldn’t incur any cost to get the vaccine because those under 18 can get it free from their local health department, and private insurance companies should take care of those over 18 through the federal Affordable Care Act.
“It provides a needed protection particularly for those students living in residential housing,” said Gregory, adding that policies are planned to allow students who live off campus to have access to the vaccine.
“The data shows those are the students that are most at risk … when they’re sharing living conditions and living quarters.”
Wilson said he’s pleased to see the legislation come together so quickly.
“We’re happy to see that Jacob … didn’t die in vain,” he said.