I believe in vaccinations. I think it’s a good idea to take precautionary measures against potentially devastating diseases, particularly those that pass easily from person to person.
But I squirm about government inserting itself and mandating vaccines, and I especially don’t believe that vaccines for exceedingly rare diseases should be made mandatory for specific groups of people, such as a bacterial meningitis vaccinations for college students. This very thing was mandated by the state of Texas in the last legislative session (SB 1107 by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth). Some students can opt out, but the process is fairly arduous for already overwhelmed college kids who are more likely to just get it and not think twice.
How rare is bacterial meningitis? In the last year for which data is available, 2007, the Texas Department of State Health Services lists just 341 confirmed cases statewide (not all of which occured at a university or college). Now think about the student population at some Texas schools – the University of Texas at Arlington boasts nearly 30,000 students this fall semester. That’s just one school, and the number of statewide bacterial meningitis cases is approximately 1/100th of the total population at just one state university. There are 38 public institutions (some with multiple system schools) in Texas, which saw a statewide enrollment of 568,938 in Fall 2011. There are also 39 independent schools, which saw enrollment at 121,172 for the same semester (source). When you then include all the two-year institutions and other special higher education centers, statewide enrollment was 1,468,065 for Fall 2011.
In the same year that 341 cases of bacterial meningitis were reported and confirmed, higher education enrollment in Texas was 1,364,911. The disparity is staggering and the reasoning for the mandated vaccine hard to fathom. As a promoted option for students living on campus, it might have made sense to a point, but as a requirement for even enrolling in classes, this goes beyond the pale.
Meanwhile, because of tight budgets, state and federal money that would provide free vaccinations for low-income students has all but dried up – bacterial meningitis vaccinations were removed from the list of what is provided this year. So students are left to find a way to fork out up to $270 for the shot or risk not being able to register for classes or sign up for financial aid – this includes students who don’t have insurance, are eligible for Medicaid, or “underinsured” as defined here. In fact, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, students who are trying to save money by attending smaller schools or community colleges are finding they have to pay more for the same vaccine if insurance doesn’t cover it or they are uninsured. Large schools provide the vaccine at relatively low cost, but Austin Community College, for example, has to send students to doctors and other providers who charge a lot more than a university health center is able to charge.
College students are dealing with the specter of ever-increasing tuition and ballooning student loan debt, and while the cost and fact of this mandated vaccine may not prevent any student from attending school, it will certainly add to the burden. The handful of legislators who opposed this measure in 2011 should be praised – and the rest, perhaps, should have the bill read aloud to them every time they squirm and squawk about unfunded mandates. This one’s a whopper – and exceedingly unnecessary at the same time.