State to join vaccine push

USF death has the state Board of Governors considering mandatory meningitis shots.

Published September 27, 2007

A fatal case of bacterial meningitis cut short University of South Florida sophomore Rachel Futterman's promising life, but state university system leaders are moving fast to prevent future deaths.

Today the board that oversees Florida's 11 universities will consider a recommendation from student health directors to make the meningitis vaccine mandatory for all incoming students, not just those living on campus.

Meanwhile, USF president Judy Genshaft is moving forward separately with a plan to require the vaccine for all students who live on campus at USF.

"President Genshaft wants the vaccination required for all residential residents, no opting out," USF spokesman Ken Gullette said. "We believe we have the authority."

The question of exemptions for religious or medical reasons is still being discussed, he said.

The recommendations from health directors Wednesday, just two days after Futterman's death, made clear other university officials feel strongly about the need for immunization against bacterial meningitis, a rare but fast-killing infection.

They want the Board of Governors, meeting in Tallahassee today, to push for a change in state law, which now only requires students living on campus to sign paperwork saying they've gotten the vaccine or are opting out. Some universities, such as the University of Florida, require students show proof of vaccination.

Health directors are recommending the Board of Governors form a task force to draft exemptions to any all-student vaccine requirement allowing students to continue to opt out for religious or other reasons.

But they said they feel too many students already get waivers, and that the ultimate goal should be to vaccinate as many students as possible.

"Even students who are rooming together off campus have the same kind of close contact that can spread meningitis," said Board of Governors spokesman Bill Demands. "They're at just as much risk."

Nationally, freshmen living in campus housing run a four in 100,000 chance of contracting meningitis, a rate four times that of the general population. Some university medical officials said this week that students living off-campus do not face an increased risk, but the same risk as the general population.

Futterman started feeling flu-like symptoms over the weekend and was dead by Monday. She was 19, a Delta Gamma sorority member studying marketing.

Bacterial meningitis is infection of the fluid in the spinal cord and the fluid that surrounds the brain. Its aggressive attack against the immune system can take as little as 12 hours to spread through the body.

It is transmitted by very close contact, including kissing or oral contact with shared items such as cigarettes or drinking glasses.

Menactra, the latest meningitis vaccine, provides 70 to 85 percent protection against four strains of the disease.

USF officials could not disclose whether Futterman was vaccinated, but they said she completed her paperwork as required before moving into the Delta Gamma house on campus.

But they acknowledged other students have been allowed to move onto campus before filling out the vaccine paperwork, and they vowed to start enforcing a policy of "no vaccine, no waiver, no move-in."

Health directors from the state's universities also want the Board of Governors to require universities to record any vaccines they deliver to students in a state database of inoculations.

Staff writer Kevin Graham contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.