A Microscopic Threat
This article appeared in the Port Side‘s December 2012 print issue.
Other than the occasional unwary longboarder, the threat of danger seems slim at the Claremont Colleges. However, in reality, one of the greatest threats to students is constantly present in microscopic form. The potential of a disease outbreak lurks on the campuses, evidenced by the spread of norovirus earlier this semester. One such disease which has the ability to incapacitate a college campus and can be fatal is meningitis.
A recent outbreak of fungal meningitis in the United States exposed the potential for a campus-wide epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the recent surge in cases of fungal meningitis spanned multiple states and originated from a batch of contaminated back pain steroids produced by the New England Compounding Center.
Meningitis is the swelling of the tissues that surround the brain and spinal cord. About 6000 Americans contract bacterial meningitis per year and 25 percent of the cases are fatal. College students living on-campus are two to three times more at risk of infection than the general population. Thus, meningitis vaccination is strongly recommended for students by the Claremont Colleges.
“Having the meningitis vaccine is not a requirement at The Claremont Colleges; however, it is strongly recommended as per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American College Health Association (ACHA) recommendations. We collect immunization records for all undergraduate freshman and transfer students so that should there be a disease outbreak, we have a record of who’s been vaccinated,” said Dr. Jennie Ho, director of Student Health Services for the Claremont Colleges.
Requiring the meningitis vaccination for Claremont students seems like the logical decision. In the event of an outbreak, very little would be left to chance and students would be well protected. However, students argue that mandatory immunization detracts from their freedom to make personal health decisions.
“With every vaccine, something is being injected that has the virus or part of the virus in it. There is a threat that one can have a reaction, go into shock, or experience arm swelling. It can get as serious as brain disorders, mental problems, or death. Since it does not pose an immediate threat right now, there is no need to make it such that you can’t go to class tomorrow if you don’t have the shot,” said Hannah Rapp SC’ 13.
Additionally, Rapp said that if most people choose to be vaccinated, it could lead to herd immunity, a phenomena where unvaccinated individuals are protected by the vaccinated majority.
“I think that if [the Claremont Colleges] are going to require it they also have to tell you the risks that you are posing to the community if you do not get the shot and the risk you are presenting to yourself if you do get meningitis,” Rapp said.
Many students feel that vaccines should not be a high priority for college policies. Instead, students opposed to the vaccination believe increased education on the disease is more beneficial.
“I think it’s important to have the vaccine highly recommended but it’s not a high emergency situation. There is a lack of awareness about the disease since it hasn’t been something prevalent in our college community,” Stella Deng PO ‘13 said.
Dr. Ann Davis, professor of philosophy at Pomona, held the opposite viewpoint. Davis argued that it should be less of a question of what the colleges are allowed to make a student do and more of a question of public health.
“I am pro-public health. Vaccinations should be obligatory unless you have a good reason for it not to be. But we should be assigning the right vaccines. As a matter of conscience, you should take vaccines or get out. Some people opt out because of free riding, some don’t understand and some opt out because of bad science. The free riding of people with vaccines is amoral and irresponsible,” Davis said.
One of the biggest issues with people not getting vaccinations is that while it potentially may not have any negative ramifications for those around them, this cannot be guaranteed. Dr. Davis compared this to drunk driving, while someone driving drunk may not necessarily get into an accident, the risk still exists. Likewise, while individuals may avoid getting vaccinations because they hope that herd immunity will protect them, there is still a chance they will be left unprotected in the midst of an outbreak.
In order to ensure the protection of Claremont students, meningitis vaccinations should be required for incoming students to ensure everyone’s safety. That being said, there should also be more awareness about vaccines as well as programs to assist those students who cannot get vaccinated.